Wednesday, December 19, 2012

We can LIC our energy problems

Thanks to a new provincial regulation, there is now a cost-free way for municipalities like Barrie to fund homeowners improvements to save or even generate energy.
I’ve written before on the benefits of solar, and of retrofitting to shrink gas or electric bills. For both, the main obstacle is cash. Although energy savings and renewable income return more than they cost, you must put up the money first, then pay it back over time. By borrowing, you can avoid going out-of-pocket, but that won’t work for everyone. Some can’t qualify for a loan, while others are wary of taking on debt. Selling your home before the loan is repaid is also a concern.
But there’s a new way to finance these projects. The municipality funds it through a bond, taken at the lowest interest rate, then recoups the charges through an increase in the improved home’s property tax, called a local improvement charge (LIC).
Normally LICs used to fund road upgrades or sewer improvements, and homeowners have no choice. But the new regulation allows for voluntary agreements with homeowners, for improvements to private buildings rather than public works.
Your monthly utility savings or renewable income repay the loan. There is no debt in your name – the loan is registered to the property itself. If you sell, the obligation (along with the benefit of improvement) transfers to the new owner, while if payments aren’t made, the City can undertake a tax sale, so they can’t lose. The City’s bond is paid down by the homeowner payments, so the cost to the City is nil. The LIC can be set to recover all administrative costs and even generate a small profit. It’s a real win-win situation!
Benefits of this LIC program are many. It will improve the quality and value of our housing stock. It will reduce energy use and pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. It can help people with low income or poor credit, or improve affordable housing without extra cost. The work will create local jobs and support local businesses.
The rules allow for a variety of renewable energy or efficiency projects. These could include new insulation, new windows, a new furnace or air conditioner, solar panels or thermal water heating, etc.
All that is required for this to happen is for the City to take the initiative in setting up a program to make this funding available to residents. If you’d like to see that in 2013, please contact your ward councillor.
And in an update on solar power co-ops, the province has just opened up a narrow window for applications, which closes January 18th. So if you’re still interested in the good clean return of a solar investment, you can contact or for information on how to join.
Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Solar energy program can generate revenue".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friday, December 14, 2012

Putting your back into urban canopy

I’ve written before of local author Gwen Petreman’s passion for trees and her personal campaign to increase Barrie’s urban tree canopy to over 30% from its current level of just 25%.
Mature and growing trees affect more than just aesthetics; a glimpse at the real estate pages will show they raise the value of a home or street. But their benefits, both environmental and financial, stretch far beyond that.
Trees are nature’s sponges. Their leaves filter air pollutants like smog. Although their pollen may cause some seasonal allergy suffering, they provide a year-round benefit to asthmatics or anyone else sensitive to air quality. Their roots help to clean soil and the water passing through it that recharges the streams, lakes, and aquifers providing our drinking water.
Trees also provide hidden financial benefits. By catching and delaying rainwater, they reduce the cost to build, repair, and maintain storm water systems that comes out of your property tax bill. By cleaning air they reduce illness and absenteeism, and by cleaning water they help cut water treatment costs. Preventing soil erosion reduces street- and storm drain-cleaning costs, too.
They also improve shelter. When not cut down for materials or to make room for buildings, trees around our homes make life more affordable. In summer, leafy trees provide shade and evapotranspiration, lowering temperatures around your house and reducing cooling costs. In winter, trees shelter your home from winds that draw out heat, saving your heating bill. Over a 50-year lifespan, one tree provides the equivalent of $160,000 of environmental services by creating oxygen, cleaning water & air, and preventing soil erosion!
But urban trees struggle. Many are cut down for development, of course. Newly-planted trees take many years to establish. Without sufficient soil or unpaved space, tree growth will be stunted, and the limited root systems of younger trees are more vulnerable to climate change effects like drought. When large areas are developed all at once and planted with trees the same age, the city faces coordinated die-offs as they reach the end of their lifespan around the same time. And pests can be a huge burden, including the expected arrival of the emerald ash borer imperiling 180,000 Barrie trees.
Luckily there are crusaders like Gwen Petreman of Living Green bringing together partners to replace and expand our tree canopy. For their annual charity day on Monday, December 17th, Barrie Chiropractic & Health Services Centre at 55 Cedar Point Dr. will donate all proceeds to Living Green’s tree-planting initiatives. If you could use a massage, adjustment, or other wellness service, please drop in and help trees while getting help for yourself. The money raised will be paired with funds from Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority’s Watershed Program to pay for tree planting along the Huronia Buffer.
Watch this column for notice of the spring planting day when you can put your back into it, or on Monday, let Barrie Chiropractic & Health pamper your back and support trees at the same time!
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Expanding tree canopy benefits us all"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Green gifts: a plot to use less chemicals

Christmas approaches, and why not buy something local, organic, or do-it-yourself – or something that’s all three!
On December 1st registration opened for the 2013 season of Barrie’s community gardens at Sunnidale Park off Coulter Street and at Golden Meadow Park by Hurst Drive, with possibly another in north-east Barrie coming this spring. (You might recall I wrote about these back when they were just getting started up in 2010.)
Plots book up quickly, so if you (or a loved one) care to garden this year, sign up now. A regular 5 X 15 foot plot is just $20 for the whole season, a double plot (10 X 15) only $40 (plus HST). That fee includes gardening from April 1 to October 31, compost fertilizer, and use of a shed full of handy tools like shovels, wheelbarrows, and rakes.
Previous gardening seasons have been successful, so we expect to see every plot booked this year. More gardeners means the gardens can thrive and grow, and there is always a warm welcome for volunteer coordinators who can share time or skills.
Each gardener is responsible for keeping their own plot weeded and neat, which takes only about 3 hours per week. To sign up, visit and enter “community garden” in the search box.
If gardening isn’t for you, or you have your own garden space, here’s another organic gift suggestion: soap berries, or soap nuts. These are the dried berries from a bush grown in the Himalayas which resemble nuts or acorns, that you use in place of laundry detergent.
You put 3-5 of these nuts into a little cloth drawstring bag which goes into the washing machine with your laundry. (For a cold wash, pre-soak them in warm water for 10 minutes first). They contain natural surfactants that work like a gentle laundry soap and get your clothes clean without any harsh or irritating chemicals or perfumes. Since you can re-use them for several loads, a single sack lasts many months, and they work fine in energy-saving HE machines like ours.
I’m always skeptical of alternate no-soap laundry systems, because I know that using the over-generous recommended amount of laundry soap leaves some detergent in your clothes after each cycle. Then, when you test a “soap-free” system, the leftover soap comes out and does the actual washing, tricking you into believing the no-soap system works. So to test these, we used them exclusively for about 6 months. They kept working just fine long after any soap residue was gone from our clothes or washer. They were also a successful entrant on CBC’s Dragons’ Den.
I confidently recommend soap nuts, an effective organic alternative to chemical laundry detergents. They come in different sizes and brands. The one I use is called Earth’s Berries, and is available for purchase at Bodystream at 51 King St in Barrie.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Community gardens really can grow on you".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.