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Greener branches

Credit unions that have undertaken initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of their branches are finding that small changes can have a big impact.

How green is green enough? As the reality of climate change bears down harder upon us with each passing season, many credit unions are working to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by their branches. Assiniboine Credit Union (111,002 members, $4.4 billion in assets), which won the 2017 National Credit Union Award for social responsibility, has spent more than 10 years blending common-sense designs with innovative features to create branches that have significantly reduced energy consumption and GHG emissions. “In 2006, Assiniboine merged with a couple of other credit unions and there was a feeling that the growth necessitated a greater focus on reducing our environmental footprint,” says Dennis Cunningham, manager of environmental sustainability at Assiniboine, which is headquartered in Winnipeg. (GHGs, which include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2) methane and nitrous oxide, absorb infrared radiation from the sun and block the heat from escaping.)

Assiniboine Credit Union’s Pembina branch received LEED certification in 2010.

Assiniboine built a LEED Certified branch in 2008, then used it as a model for several additional new branches. These include such elements as metal roofs, solar walls, rainwater collection and geothermal heating systems. “One of our branches is geothermal and another is connected to a geothermal system operated by the IKEA store in the area. We share the energy they’re collecting,” says Cunningham. “We also have a solar wall we install in all new locations. It’s a double-layered steel cavity, kind of like a metal clad wall that is painted a dark colour and placed in a south-facing position. Air is heated from sunlight hitting the black metal. It’s a super simple technology but it does support bringing pre-warmed fresh air into the ventilation system.”

All of Assiniboine’s 17 branches include a range of features that blend natural energy reduction strategies such as open office plans, natural light, light coloured finishes and glass walls, with energy efficient components such as lighting with motion sensors. “That’s become the norm for us now,” Cunningham says.

Assiniboine’s leased locations are a little less efficient, Cunningham says. “We bring in lighting retrofits or other energy efficiency measures but we have to be able to convince the landlord that it’s worth the investment. But when we look at constructing new branches, we look beyond conventional energy efficient construction to a net zero or passive house construction. We get our energy consumption down to hundreds of dollars per year instead of several thousand dollars.”

Between 2012 and 2016, Assiniboine’s natural gas consumption decreased by 22 percent and its electricity consumption decreased by 24 percent. The GHG emissions associated with natural gas consumption decreased to 307 tonnes in 2016 from 451 tonnes in 2012 and GHG emissions from electricity consumption declined to 18.7 tonnes in 2016 from 24.3 tonnes in 2012. Energy expenditures also decreased by eight percent for natural gas and 12 percent for electricity.

Buildings big GHG emitters

Buildings are one of the top three producers of greenhouse gases globally, along with cars — prime sources of CO2 — and cows, which produce methane, a gas 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than CO2.

According to the Canada Green Building Council, more than 30 percent of GHG emissions are generated by the building sector. Globally, buildings comprise 25 to 40 percent of all energy use, 20 percent of all water consumption and generate 30 to 40 percent of all solid waste.

In this era of catastrophic climate events, how green is green enough and how much should a credit union invest?

The United Nations Environment Programme identified buildings as presenting the greatest potential for achieving significant energy and GHG emissions reductions, at the least cost. It’s a potential many Canadian credit unions are unlocking as they green their branches and overall operations. But in this era of catastrophic climate events, how green is green enough and how much should a credit union invest?

There’s no special formula, says Greg Ward, president of Newground Canada, based in Waterloo, Ont., which has designed dozens of credit union branches across the country. “I think it’s important for a credit union to be as sustainable as possible — that’s part of their values and community,” says Ward. “In terms of what designation they use, it should reflect their membership.”

Ward says that five to 10 years ago, green buildings were more of a marketing trend, as was LEED certification. But today, it’s becoming a more ingrained part of the building sector. “Now it’s more just day-to-day business that has to be done,” he says. “Building codes are changing and getting more restrictive. In Ontario, new codes are coming into effect. For example, the insulation in a typical building has dramatically increased. And lots of the engineering and modelling has to be done upfront. You have to prove before you get your permit that you have a building that is sustainable.”

Newground Canada designed Libro Credit Union’s Kitchener, Ont. branch with recycled brick and a geothermal heating system.

According to the Canada Green Building Council, green buildings eliminate up to 28 percent of energy usage, 10 to 50 percent of potable water usage, up to 90 percent of construction waste and up to 50 percent of sewer waste. And, with existing buildings, “simple measures like lighting retrofits and improvements to control measures can lead to 10 to 30 percent energy savings,” says Mark Hutchinson, the council’s vice-president of Green Building Programs.

The carbon offset route

Your Credit Union (11,500 members, $277 million in assets) in Ottawa took a slightly different approach to greening its operations. Rather than retrofitting its branches to reduce GHGs, Your Credit Union partnered with Bullfrog Power to offset its energy consumption. Bullfrog matches the credit union’s energy consumption with clean, renewable energy that it puts back onto the grid. “We’re the first credit union in Canada to completely convert our energy use to green sources,” says CEO Joel Lalonde. “Bullfrog basically measures your consumption and replaces it into the grid from natural sources.”

Your Credit Union also became one of the initial members of Carbon 613 in Ottawa, a membership-based organization that promotes carbon reduction strategies. Through its involvement, it has made a commitment to reducing its carbon output by 20 percent over the next 10 years, which will include switching to energy efficient LED lighting, Lalonde says.

Biking to work

Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (523,000 members, $21 billion in assets) is also focusing a lot on transportation when it comes to GHG reduction. “Our employees get a 25 percent discount on transit,” says Jeremy Trigg, director, Facility and Environmental Management. “We match the provincial program on electric vehicle purchase and we provide charging stations at some branches. We also allow staff to buy bikes at a discount, which increased the number of staff biking to work by 40 percent in one year.”

Steinbach Credit Union’s Winnipeg branch, designed by Newground Canada, features a geothermal heating system and triple-glazed windows.

Sustainability has long been part of Vancity’s core approach. “We’re a triple bottom-line organization,” says Trigg. “Back in 1992 we started a program of reducing our energy footprint across our organization. Today, each staff member uses about 45 percent of the energy they used then.”

Vancity’s branches are all built to LEED Gold standards or higher, “although we do not get every facility certified,” Trigg says. In 2016, the credit union won an award for its pioneering use of a heat recovery system at Vancity Centre branch. “We’ve used excess heat from computing power to actually heat the building. We reduced the natural gas usage by 95 percent and reduced the GHGs from energy use in building by over 80 percent.”

Obstacles on the path to green

The path to green buildings isn’t always smooth. “Sometimes you have to watch out for unexpected outcomes,” says Assiniboine’s Cunningham. “For example, six years ago we introduced a computer energy management system into all of our computers. If computers are left on, after a certain time, the system steps in and puts them to sleep, which cuts down on electricity consumption. Shortly after, we had an energy audit done. One recommendation was, ‘if you’re thinking about putting this software on, don’t.’ As soon as computers go into sleep mode, they stop generating heat. So the heating system kicks in to make up that gap. This uses gas and your emissions will actually go up!”

Cunningham says that, going forward, the credit union will engage experts who can help them better understand the implications of new green initiatives. “There’s always going to be little trade offs. I would never discourage a credit union from pursuing energy efficiency but the biggest risk lies in doing it without research and planning,” Cunningham says. “A lot of people focus on the shiny technology, where in many instances it’s simple things that will deliver greater benefit.” ◊

Green options for existing branches

Looking for ways to green your existing credit union branches? The Green Building Council’s Mark Hutchinson, vice-president of its Green Building Programs, suggests the following:

  • Perform a building thermographic scan to see areas of heat loss in the building and develop a plan to address the issues and improve building performance.
  • Upgrade building lighting to LED lamps to improve energy efficiency and reduce mercury containing lamps.
  • Implement upgrades to existing plumbing fixtures to reduce water usage.
  • Implement a building automation system to monitor, control and optimize key building systems, such as lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation.
  • Invest in renewable energy sources to reduce the impacts of fossil fuel energy use.
  • Implement a sustainable purchasing policy to promote the purchase of products that contain recycled content, are manufactured locally, contain rapidly renewable materials, or are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
  • Implement a green cleaning policy and program, using environmentally preferable cleaning products, equipment and materials.
  • Implement a solid waste management policy and recycling program for the building and encourage building occupants to recycle.