Ask the Expert - Learn how Derek Satnik of Mindscape Innovations went from the automotive industry to green building

 Derek Satnik

This month's Ask the Expert subject Derek Satnik, Managing Director and Chief Innovation Officer for Mindscape Innovations, talks about leaving the automotive industry for the greener pastures of sustainable energy and buildings, and community energy planning.

1. Tell me about your background, and how you got involved in green building.

One of the things I love about the "green" space is that the leaders all have such diverse and interesting stories to tell about how they got to where they are. I like to call myself a recovered automotive engineer. I used to spend all my time teaching robots and machines how to build car parts without hurting people. I graduated university with a specialization in power and control systems. Not exactly what you might expect for a green guy!

After a few years of automotive work (which I really did enjoy), I found myself working too long during the holidays and long weekends, and I needed a change for my family's sake. I began to transition from doing electrical engineering on industrial processes to doing more engineering work on the buildings around the processes. I moved from the Industrial division at Stantec (where I still have good friends whom I respect greatly) to the LEED team at Enermodal, where I focused much more on building design, and on power and control systems to help run buildings well.

I started volunteering in industry committees like CaGBC's (then) Residential High Rise committee, and I ended up playing with housing related versions of LEED. Ultimately I partnered with Bryan Taylor to launch Mindscape, where I am now proud to lead a team of incredible people that have earned respect across Canada for our work on sustainable housing and renewable energy projects and programs.

2. Is there a particular project that you've worked on that you are most proud of or that stands out?

 Reid Heritage Homes, Westminster Woods Community.

I've had many experiences that I cherish, and I've enjoyed working with some fantastic clients and partners. It's too tough to pick a favourite. Some of my highlights would definitely include our firsts though: the first LEED home in Canada with Reid's Heritage Homes (Guelph), the first neighbourhood of Platinum homes with Rodeo Fine Homes (Newmarket), net-zero EQuilibrium homes with Minto (Ottawa) and "Now House" (Toronto), and municipal solar projects across a host of public buildings with the Region of Waterloo.

I think my "favourite" project is always the hardest one that I'm presently working on. Right now we're working on a community of a little less than 100 acres that will provide its own power. I hope to be able to say more about this project in public soon.

3. Tell me a bit more about your involvement in Ontario's Green Energy and Green Economy Act.

Volunteering is one of the best ways to meet people and build your professional network, so I've been volunteering for a while now. The story of how I got involved with Ontario's Green Energy Act starts with a local municipal non-profit called Community Renewable Energy Waterloo (CREW), whose mandate is to educate and advocate on issues related to renewable energy in Waterloo region. CREW joined the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA) because of the resources and connections OSEA could offer, and because of the good work OSEA was doing at the provincial level.

I was CREW's representative to OSEA, and later joined the OSEA Board of Directors. OSEA successfully coached the Ontario government through the process of launching a Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program (RESOP, the predecessor to the Green Energy Act), and I was in the wings during that effort. OSEA later rallied over 50 associations across the "green" space, from Green Peace to the Steel Workers' Union, and founded the Green Energy Act Alliance (GEAA). I was one of two OSEA Directors who sat on the Management Committee of the GEAA and helped steer a broad and inclusive campaign for the creation of a Green Energy Act: a new act that would promote and enable the creation of a green energy industry in Ontario, with good jobs, producing local energy, promoting local independence and economic growth. We worked closely with the Ontario Government for over a year, and in 2009 we were all on hand to celebrate the official announcement of Ontario's Green Energy and Green Economy Act.

4. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the green/sustainable industry today?

Cultural and political inertia. Necessity is the mother of invention. Australia is the world leader in water conservation. Why? Because they have no water. Canada has rich abundance of energy and material resources, and our blessedness feeds our apathy. Why try to use water more efficiently if you're surrounded by the great lakes in Southern Ontario? Or why try to use energy more efficiently if you have a perceived unlimited supply of hydro in Manitoba or BC? We certainly are conserving and improving, but not nearly as quickly as other jurisdictions that have greater need.

And as much as this is true, I suspect that marketing may be an even greater challenge. Why is it that the tobacco industry can continue to sell cancer sticks to teenagers after decades of being exposed and opposed by the medical community? Clearly tobacco companies have learned something about marketing that the green building industry needs to learn. We green geeks tend to be just that: green geeks, with incredible technical competence and relatively less marketing sense. We excel at selling to our peers and, to a lesser degree, our clients, but not to the general public. We need to learn from the marketing industry that sells tobacco and technology widgets, and get some of that secret stew to help sell green.

5. You've also been involved in community energy planning. Why do you think this is important?

 

Minto EQuilibrium Home, Ottawa

 

Energy is part of everything we do. Without energy, nothing works: not light bulbs, not fridges, not traffic signals, not hospitals, not anything. This means that energy represents a huge liability, and a huge opportunity. Although many of our laws come down from the highest levels, they all ultimately get implemented locally, and local change always ends up leading national change. That's why community planning is so important.

When local communities take ownership of their needs and their resources, and find ways to marry the two together sustainably, then those local communities thrive, grow, and inspire others. Community energy planning has many side benefits: planning local energy means planning its use, and planning where to get generation from. It implies things that create local jobs helping people conserve energy, and other local jobs helping generate and sell energy, and those local jobs spend their money locally, helping build local economy. Done well, the whole concept builds upon itself, compounding future opportunity.

6. Where do you see the industry headed in the future? What will be the biggest trends?

My crystal ball is as murky as anyone's, but there are a few things we've learned in the last decade that I think help shed some light on what's coming next. LED's and solar panels have dropped so sharply in price over the last decade that they have dramatically changed the payback analysis of energy designs. Within the next 10 years, I expect many jurisdictions in Canada (and many more around the world) to be able to install building-integrated solar panels cost competitively with other standard practice.

I also expect to see more DC electrical devices, sometimes powered directly from solar panels, sometimes integrated into local microgrids, sometimes tied to buildings that operate the same as today's best practice. Electric cars will become much more prevalent, and will increasingly affect community and building design.

Home automation and home energy management will become more and more prevalent (Google Nest anyone?). There will be new and more impressive finishing products as recyclers get more creative.

There will be new and more impressive mechanical systems that will probably look the same as what we have today, but will be even smaller and more efficient. And perhaps best of all, there will be a few new leaders: companies that have finally figured out a marketing message that works, and that will capture the vision of the general public, and that truly launches the next accelerated wave of culture change. I do hope to contribute to that!