Excerpted from the full article originally published in Forum Magazine, November-December 2006.
For Alberta, it is definitely the best of times: debt-free, an energy-based economy that has the momentum of a runaway freight car, and jobs, jobs, jobs.
Outside of Alberta, that is often the only story people hear about on the news. Take a closer look at the province’s two largest cities, however, and you see another story—one of environmental achievement that the rest of the country would be foolish to ignore.
Edmonton has amassed an impressive wealth of knowledge when it comes to waste management, water and wastewater treatment, due in part to the work done at its Waste Management Centre of Excellence.
The Centre—a partnership among the city, the Alberta Research Council, a consulting firm and three educational institutions—is a hub for the research and development of leading-edge waste management technologies and processes. It was here that the city tested its award-winning membrane filtration wastewater treatment process.
“Membrane filtration is like sucking ice water through a straw. You pull only the water through and not the ice cubes,” said Chris Ward of the city’s drainage services branch. “A membrane works on the same principle, with the particles being the ice cubes. They’re microscopic and can’t get through the hole size of the straw.”
At around the same time as Edmonton was testing the membrane technology, Petro Canada was in the midst of an upgrade to its refinery to meet new federal regulations for reducing sulphur levels in gasoline and diesel. To do so, Petro Canada needed to build a new treatment plant to draw millions of litres of fresh water each day from the North Saskatchewan River and convert the water to hydrogen in order to remove the sulphur.
A happy coincidence ensued. “We heard that the city was looking to expand the use of its treated water and we saw the opportunity to reuse this water for our purposes,” said Ed Wittstock, Petro Canada’s business integration manager.
The city and Petro Canada formed a partnership with the city building and operating the membrane treatment facility and Petro Canada picking up the tab for a pipeline from the facility to the refinery.
Each day, five million litres of membrane treated water is sent through the pipeline to the refinery. The water is safe for non-potable water uses, but since the pipeline runs through Edmonton’s sensitive river valley and three parks, the city adds chlorine to the pipeline as an extra barrier against contamination. The treated water is used not only by Petro Canada but also by the city to stock two park lakes and to provide water for snowmaking.
“We’re able to meet the demands of a major water user without using potable water to do it or taking water from the river,” says Mayor Stephen Mandel. “It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the cost of operations, and it’s good for the citizens of Edmonton.”
The project has won several awards and has also received praise from conservation groups. “We want to see more of this industrial ecology approach where facilities partner with each other to take what is a waste stream out of one and turn it into a feedstock for another,” says Myles Kitagawa, the associate director of the Alberta Toxics Watch Society.
On the waste front, Edmonton residents have a diversion rate of 50 per cent, with more than 90 per cent of all residents participating in the city’s waste management programs. Once recyclable materials are streamed out, the household waste that remains is mostly organic. This material is sent to Edmonton’s co-composting plant where it is further separated, screened and aerated, and finally, cured for up to six months, producing 80,000 tonnes of compost each year.
Canada’s wind energy capital
One would be hard pressed to find a city that has embraced renewable energy more than Calgary. Five years ago, for example, Calgary’s C-Train became the first public transit system in North America to run solely on wind energy.
Starting January 1, 2007, the city will obtain three-quarters of all its electricity needs from an 80-megawatt wind farm, now being constructed in Taber, Alberta. Calgary and its wholly owned utility, ENMAX Corporation, inked a 20-year renewable energy agreement, the largest contract of its kind signed by any municipality in North America.
“We’re hoping that this will lay the groundwork for other municipalities to follow,” said Ken Stone, senior engineer with the city’s infrastructure and energy programs.
Even if the wind farm does not generate enough energy, ENMAX will continue to supply green energy from methane gas captured at two of Calgary’s landfills. “This agreement will reduce the city’s emissions by more than 200,000 tonnes annually, the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road,” said Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier.
Calgary’s philosophy has always been to get its own house in order first. “It sends a strong message that if you’re going to challenge others to do more, then you have to do it first,” said Kathy Strong-Duffin of the city’s environmental management unit. “When we talk to other cities, they have great ideas but they don’t necessarily promote them. We just do it,” said Ms. Strong-Duffin. “It’s the Alberta way!”