Gas Pains and Green Roofs

January 5, 2001

By Michael Jessen

It's a new year, a new millennium, and a new hit to the pocketbook for natural gas users. As anyone with a BC Gas bill will soon know, a 27-percent price increase kicked in January 1.

The hike has customers digging deeper into their wallets and has corporations greedily eyeing Canada's gold mine of gas reserves in places like the environmentally fragile Nunavut Territory.

But rather than exploit the "rooftop" of Canada, a better answer may be to green North American rooftops in a contemporary variation on the sod roof used in Iceland and Scandinavia for hundreds of years.

In fact, a recent study done by Weston Design Consultants for the city of Chicago estimates that the greening of all of the city's rooftops would produce $100 million in saved energy annually. Peak demand would be cut by 720 megawatts - the equivalent energy produced by several coal-fired generating stations or one small nuclear power plant.

Here's how it works. Green rooftop technology replaces traditional flat rooftops with a series of carefully engineered layers. A water- and root-repellent membrane is installed on top of a reinforced roof structure. A drainage layer separates growing material from the underlying membrane. A variety of low-maintenance grasses, plants, shrubs, and trees are planted on green roofs.

Significant long-term savings can offset the cost of installing a green rooftop. They last twice as long as standard roofs, reducing maintenance and replacement costs. They also muffle sound, creating a more efficient work environment. In addition, green roof installation creates hundreds of local jobs.

Green rooftops offer other environmental benefits. They capture and filter air pollutants and retain as much as 50 to 70 percent of the storm water that they capture. This reduces storm water contamination and the risk of flooding.

The initial short-term capital costs of green roof construction can be offset through long-term energy and maintenance savings. The economic benefits represent real reasons for local municipalities, developers, and private residence owners to consider opting for a green roof.

Green rooftop technology is being introduced in Canada and the United States, but it is a common feature of construction in Germany, France, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, and other European countries. In North America, cities such as Toronto and Chicago have established green rooftop demonstration projects on city-owned buildings. Washington, D.C. and Portland have begun to conduct research on the benefits of public green rooftops.

Noted landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander designed an extensive greenroof on top of the Library Square Building in downtown Vancouver. This application is a prime example of the purely aesthetic benefits provided by the welcome visual relief for the many high-rise office views.

In Toronto, the planting of the 7,000 square foot greenroof at Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre will be done this spring in order to maximize plant survivability and facilitate the implementation of monitoring equipment. The Podium Roof at Toronto's City Hall was completed last fall.

Now to the fate of Canada's Arctic rooftop, which is quite literally up for grabs.

"The figure we like to give is that Nunavut sits on $1 trillion of oil and gas," says geologist Benoit Beauchamp of the Geological Survey of Canada. "It sits on great reserves and there's a market which is going to get them."

The Arctic Islands of the Sverdrup Basin are thought to contain 10 per cent of Canada's remaining crude oil reserves and 23 per cent of its gas reserves. The only problem is their remoteness. A gas pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to Alberta could overcome that shortcoming. Such a connection, says Beauchamp, would make building another easier.

The first step towards opening up the Sverdrup Basin has already been made. Canada's Department of Northern Development and Indian Affairs sent out a call to companies interested in oil and gas exploration rights in the basin last month.

Gas consumption is forecast to rise by 33 percent in North America, according to Beauchamp. "So they have to find this gas somewhere," he added.

Gas is increasingly in demand because many coal burning electric generators have converted to gas which, unlike coal, burns cleaner and creates less pollution. But this electricity is being used for either heating or cooling purposes that can be achieved much easier naturally with renovations like greenroofs that keep buildings warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

For years North America's built environment has consisted of structures that are unnatural because they are cheaper to build. This has resulted in false economy, says energy guru Amory Lovins, since the oil from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, for instance, supplies the energy equivalent to that which leaks from the attics, doors and windows of poorly constructed American buildings.

This development, which is only 60 miles west of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, demonstrates the damage that can be caused to delicate environments. Prudhoe Bay is a gargantuan oil complex that has turned 1,000 square miles of fragile tundra into a sprawling industrial zone containing 1,500 miles of roads and pipelines, 1,400 producing wells and 3 jetports. The result is a landscape defaced by mountains of sewage sludge, scrap metal, garbage, and more than 60 contaminated waste sites that contain -- and often leak -- acids, lead, pesticides, solvents, diesel fuel, corrosives and other toxics.

Despite impressive conservation achievements so far, Lovins says America still wastes upwards of $300 billion a year worth of energy: more than the entire military budget, far more than the federal budget deficit, and enough to increase personal wealth by more than $1,000 per American per year. "That waste begs to be turned into profits," adds Lovins, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Institute that is headquartered in an innovative energy efficient building in Snowmass, Colorado.

He says climate policy has been held hostage to a tacit presumption that if saving a lot more energy were possible at an affordable price, it would already have been implemented. "That's like not picking up a $100 bill from the sidewalk because if it were real, someone would previously have picked it up," says Lovins.

Moreover perverse incentives prevent many companies from capitalizing on energy efficiency. Architects and engineers, for example, have no incentive to specify energy efficient motors, lighting, or heating and cooling in a new building, since the monthly electric bill quickly becomes someone else's problem. Too often, they stipulate the lowest-cost, off- the-shelf technology, even though the client would be better served over the long run with energy efficient technologies.

Increasingly, it's becoming obvious that the only way to develop sustainably is to build efficiency into one's infrastructure the first time. "Do it right from scratch," Lovins concludes.

If a green roof sounds a little "over the top," at least consider making your home or business more energy efficient. A 1997 study performed by the Alliance to Save Energy, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Natural Resources Defense Council, Tellus Institute, and Union of Concerned Scientists shows energy efficiency can be good for the economy, strengthening our competitive edge and creating jobs.

Energy Innovations, A Prosperous Path to a Clean Environment (Energy Innovations) shows that, by following the proposed "Innovation Path," the U.S. could cut carbon dioxide emissions to ten percent below 1990 levels while saving consumers money and creating 800,000 additional jobs. According to Energy Innovations, residential and commercial energy use can be cut an additional 25 to 50 percent using technology available today.

Renovating buildings to use the least energy possible is a more beneficial option than exploiting new sources of energy that continue a pattern of waste. Inefficient use of energy and reliance on polluting energy sources reduces our economic productivity and damages the health of our children and our planet.

GREEN STEPS - Set your thermostat at 20 degrees Celsius in the winter. Your heating costs rise about 5% for every degree above this setting. Insulate windows with thick curtains or blinds to reduce heat loss. Thermal draperies, made with a thick, fibre-filled backing to fit snugly against the entire window frame, can reduce heat loss by as much as 50% and save you $15 per window. Replace leaky windows with energy-efficient ones. By saving energy, these windows help reduce global warming and air pollution. A variety of double- and triple-paned energy-saving windows are available from hardware stores and window suppliers. Double-pane windows with a low-emissivity coating can reduce heating bills by 34 percent in cold climates compared to uncoated, single-pane windows. In hot climates, spectrally selective low-emissivity windows can cut cooling costs by 38 percent. Appropriate insulation for your climate (based on R-ratings) can increase your comfort and reduce your heating and cooling costs up to 30 percent. Start with attic insulation, followed by exterior and basement walls, floors, and crawl spaces. Consult your local gas and electrical utilities for literature about saving energy.

RESOURCES - A March 1999 report prepared for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation on the barriers and opportunities related to expanding the market for greenroofs entitled, Greenbacks from Green Roofs: Forging a New Industry in Canada is available online at To request a hard copy of the report, contact the Canadian Housing Information Centre by telephone 1-800-668-2642 or e-mail: An excellent web site that has everything you ever wanted to know about green roofs, including case studies, is The Toronto at the Crossroads: Shaping Our Future report states, "One of the greatest opportunities for greening the City is the promotion of 'green roofs' which involves layering contained soil and planting gardens on the flat roofs dominating the landscape of many districts in Toronto. Green roofs do much more than improve the view from downtown skyscrapers. They also: absorb stormwater and reduce off-site flows; absorb carbon dioxide and work against the greenhouse effect; conserve energy for the building below them; and, can be made into beautiful flower gardens or bountiful food gardens for occupants. The City is leading by example by creating green roofs on civic buildings. We also need to encourage the construction of green roofs in new flat-topped buildings undergoing development review." Download this report at A site full of information about controlling temperatures in cities is The Green Roofs For Healthy Cities web site is at Energy Innovations' Executive Summary is available on the web at The Alliance to Save Energy ( has a consumer booklet, Power$mart: Easy Tips to Save Money and the Planet. It can be ordered free by calling toll-free 1-888-878-3256. You can also order via the Federal Consumer Information Center website (some shipping and handling charges apply) at: Climate: Making Sense and Making Money by Amory and Hunter Lovins is "prospector's guide" for businesses that catalogues the opportunities for profiting from protecting the climate, backed up by dozens of real-world examples. It can be downloaded from Other Rocky Mountain Institute publications can be found in the Library section of RMI's web site at By entering your zip code and some details about your home, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Energy Advisor program at shows you how to save an average of $500 annually in energy bills, and gives you the resources you need to make it happen. The book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins is filled with examples of businesses and communities that have embraced resource and energy conservation. It is published by Little, Brown and Company. The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions web site at offers many examples of how companies can save energy and reduce pollution as well as increase profits and productivity.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a Nelson, BC consulting company that helps businesses and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached by telephone at 250/229-5632 or by e-mail at His firm's award-winning web site is at

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