Stories & Features

Former ski bum among 436,000 Canadians in energy efficiency

Image of energy advisor, Luke Dolan
Energy advisor Luke Dolan often says he fell into his role by accident, after stints working the construction industry (to finance his ski habit).

Passion for sustainability leads to career as an energy advisor

Luke Dolan jokes with his employees at Vancouver's Capital Home Energy about the challenge, as energy advisors, of filling out personal online applications.

"Anytime you're doing something with the bank, or applying for something online, there's never a dropdown for the position of energy advisor," says Dolan, with a laugh. "It's just not one of the choices."

Expect that to change as the profession becomes more commonplace. There are now an estimated 400 to 500 energy advisors across Canada, and some 436,000 Canadians are now employed in energy efficiency.

That's one in 50 Canadian workers now working in energy efficiency. And BC Hydro, through its pioneering Power Smart program and its work behind the scenes to push for higher efficiency standards for everything from lighting to building codes, has played a major role in making that happen.

"That was always our dream, to create jobs and opportunities around energy efficiency, and we're happy that it's happening now," says Jim Nelson, senior marketing manager with BC Hydro's conservation and energy management team. "It was our strategy, but we're a little surprised at how much it has taken off and how people have been able to make sustained, profitable companies from it."

As part of Energy Efficiency Canada, BC Hydro is excited to see the launch of the Our Human Energy website that celebrates the energy efficiency industry in Canada. There's a group of energy efficiency professionals within BC Hydro who develop and manage efficiency programs. There are energy efficiency programs at BCIT and UBC, energy managers thriving in senior positions at large B.C. commercial and industrial operations, and a network of contractors, consulting engineers, distributors and registered experts – known as BC Hydro's Alliance of Energy Professionals – who get skills training and industry insights to help them promote energy management and efficiency solutions to our customers.

And then there's Luke Dolan, who found his path to energy efficiency after a fateful start in the construction industry: painting buildings from May to December each year so that he'd be free to ski when the snow arrived.

Did you hear the one about the guy who left a baseboard heater on for five years without knowing it?

As a painter in construction, Dolan was disgusted by the amount of waste he saw at construction sites, including way too much plastic that was used once and then discarded.

"I took a long look in the mirror and said 'No, I need to do something that I'm proud about, something that's going to be good for the planet,'" he says. "I didn't know what that might be. And almost by accident, I fell into becoming an energy advisor. I didn't even know the role existed."

After a few months on the job as an energy advisor, Dolan formed his own company, Capital Home Energy, and hired other energy advisors, including one who got into the business after earning a Masters of Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois.

Dolan describes energy advisors as "energy design consultants" who inspect homes, existing and during construction, to offer advice on how to make homes more energy efficient. Consultation fees vary by the size and location of houses, but in B.C., most homeowners pay $500 to $600 for a consultation and receive a prioritized list of changes and potential upgrades.

Asked to come up with the top three in terms of recommended upgrades, Dolan lists draftproofing, followed by insulation upgrades, and then heating efficiency upgrades. But it's not uncommon for an energy advisor, in looking for the most inexpensive ways to reduce a home's energy usage, to discover something more obvious.

"What's great about our business is that we don't pull any punches, so we basically tell homeowners everything that's going wrong," he says. "I remember this one house where I go into the basement with my infrared camera, point it to the baseboard, and it's glowing. All the wood around it is black. I said, 'You know you have your baseboard on high in the crawlspace.' And they said 'No, I didn't know that.'

"I found out they'd had that thing on for five years, on high, without knowing."

BC Hydro Alliance keeps up to trends in energy efficiency

The surge in efficiency incentives for businesses has helped drive the success of BC Hydro's Alliance of Energy Professionals, a collection of contractors and other efficiency experts who are kept up to date on efficiency trends and who are given access to specific training on everything from lighting controls to electrical vehicle charger installations.

BC Hydro runs regular Industry Trend Series events that focus on specific technologies or trends, including a recent forum that discussed the emerging area of capacity-focussed demand side management. In a nutshell, it's how BC Hydro and other utilities are running trials to test the idea of shifting when electricity is used, which through residential, commercial and industrial programs and technologies, could reduce dramatic peaks in energy use and potentially delay costly additions of substations, power lines, and other infrastructure in B.C.'s communities.

"We weren't even launching a program, and yet it was our most popular event so far," says Michael Travers, who manages the Alliance initiative. "I think that speaks to the optimism and interest that these Alliance members have. They're always interested in where things are going and how we can help our customers."

Burnaby-based Prism Engineering was a one-man show in the 1990s that worked with one of BC Hydro Power Smart's first programs and never looked back. Founder and president Robert Greenwald now oversees a company of about 50 people that delivers on "wholistic" solutions via integrated teams specializing in sustainability services, core energy, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. One of his most recent hires is a McMaster University engineering grad who followed up her degree by adding energy efficiency skills to her toolbox via BCIT's Sustainable Management Certificate program.

Greenwald has become an evangelist for energy efficiency who can point to success stories such as a small hi-rise Prism worked with more than a decade ago that has rung up more than a million dollars in savings through cost avoidance: energy efficiency upgrades and technologies that dramatically cut the building's energy use. He says one of today's challenges is to get companies who are seduced by the promise of clean energy solutions such as solar electricity generation to first think about efficiency.

"Green energy is attractive to people as they try to move toward net zero buildings," says Greenwald. "But fundamentally, we need to deal with the waste and improve efficiency first.

"I do a lot of training, and one of the energy managers from ICBC once told me in a course that 'You need to eat your conservation veggies before you have your renewable energy dessert.' I've never forgotten that."

More of BC Hydro's big customers using energy managers

BC Hydro also helped pioneer the use of energy managers to oversee all aspects of energy use within large commercial and industrial operations in B.C., often getting the ball rolling with programs to help fund those energy managers in the initial stages. Initially, the vast majority of energy managers were recruits from within companies who were re-trained for the job, but "energy manager" has evolved into a career choice backed by post-secondary training, such as BCIT's sustainable energy management certificate and UBC's graduate programs in high performance buildings and clean energy engineering.

"There's more of a focus for young engineers to be working on environment and green energy management," says Tamara Berger, an industrial marketing program manager with BC Hydro. "I think the whole culture is shifting to more people looking for jobs where they can incorporate sustainability and some values-based jobs."

Again, the proof is in the numbers: 1 in 50 Canadian jobs are now in energy efficiency.