Ask the Expert: Patricia Lightburn

Of Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors

International Women's Day
Member Profiles

With extensive experience in climate and clean energy solutions for government, industry, and non-government organizations, Patricia Lightburn has contributed to several publications on renewable energy, energy efficiency and district energy, including at the Pembina Institute, the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Program.

She is part of the Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors team that supported on CaGBC’s new study, Decarbonizing Canada’s Large Buildings.

Tell us about your career and how you came to be involved in the sustainability field.

I grew up spending my free time in the mountains, forests and waters of British Columbia. Through my education, I came to understand that climate change is the is the biggest challenge to face humanity. I wanted to help create solutions to protect the environment that I care so much about.

I joined Dunsky because I realized that while the technical and policy solutions to achieve the energy transition are available, barriers still exist around taking and accelerating action. Joining Dunsky meant that I was part of a firm that focused on accelerating those technical and policy solutions, and that was already supporting major organizations across North America that are key to achieving effective climate action.

I first started in the field at the University of Toronto, where I studied Environmental Policy as my undergraduate degree. From there I launched into a career with Ontario’s provincial utility, working to develop renewable energy programs and policies looking to decarbonize Ontario’s energy system. After working in Ontario for several years I realized that I wanted to understand more aspects of the energy transition, like buildings and transportation. That led me to enroll in a master’s degree in Energy Policy in Paris. While in Paris I had the opportunity to work at the International Energy Agency (IEA) as part of their energy efficiency unit. One of my biggest projects was to participate in the launch of a global energy efficiency market report, which in turn led to the IEA’s first fuel concept for energy efficiency, in other words, how to treat energy efficiency as a supply resource just as you would renewables.

After Paris I returned to BC and held a number of roles in the clean energy sector, before joining Dunsky in 2020.

Transforming Canada’s green building sector will result in environmental, economic, and social benefits. What are the main challenges still lying ahead investing in large-building retrofits?

The main challenges I see relate to education, awareness, and capacity building – not only with building owners but also among financial institutions, trades and even tenants. There’s been an interesting shift as well. For the past decades we’ve been trying to drive energy efficiency in large buildings. We’ve seen progress in that area but now that the primary goal is to fight climate change in addition to seeking energy savings, we need to refocus and increase education about making retrofits net-zero carbon. The other main challenges are related to market and financial barriers – deep carbon large building retrofits have a tough business case in many parts of Canada, even with today’s planned carbon price increases. In addition, many of the benefits of building decarbonization are not well understood or easily quantified, making the business case even more challenging – but also the opportunities even greater.

How can the Canadian policy framework enable investments in green buildings and rapid deployment of innovations?

To enable and ramp up large-scale investments in retrofits, we need policies to support a stronger business case. We know that financing needs to be low-cost, long-term and adapted to needs of deep carbon retrofits. Another key lever is encouraging standardization of data and reporting – systems like the Investor Confidence Protocol’s Investor Ready Energy Efficiency Certification can help demonstrate the track record of these projects through solid data. Coupled with stronger carbon pricing, these measures can really help improve the economics of deep carbon retrofits. We explored many of the measures needed in a report we recently developed with RDH Building Science for the Canada Green Building Council, titled: Decarbonizing Canada’s Large Buildings: A Pathway Forward.

But even with a stronger business case, deep carbon retrofits are unlikely to ramp up at the speed we need to meet our climate targets, therefore the policy framework also needs mandatory measures to improve the performance of existing buildings, for example through codes and standards. Our firm recently worked with the Quebec Government in designing its Building Energy Rating and Disclosure program, which includes mandatory requirements for large C&I buildings to reduce their carbon and energy footprint. We simultaneously supported the City of Montreal align its new building performance regulations with the provincial system.

Equity is another important point to keep in mind when talking about retrofit policies. We want to promote retrofits across all building types, not just high-end real estate. In addition to supporting climate goals, retrofits can provide health and other benefits for the people using these buildings.

Can you tell us more about Emerging Retrofit Financing Models? How can they improve cost-effectiveness and market penetration for retrofit projects?

One approach is to provide attractive capital sources for building owners. And this refers not just to the cost of capital but also the tenor of the loan. Last year Dunsky, in collaboration with CaGBC and RDH Building Science, worked with the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) to develop its Commercial Building Retrofits Initiative. This is a great example of providing long term capital at a low cost; in other words, providing capital under terms that are designed specifically with deep carbon retrofits in mind. The CIB’s financing initiative also covers feasibility studies to bridge the gap between project conception and construction.

PACE and On-Bill financing through utilities are also examples of financing models that can be attractive to building owners. The suitability of different financing models depends greatly on the local context, as well as the needs of individual building owners. Ideally, we would have a suite of options offered through a streamlined process that is easy to access for building owners and that incorporate local rebates and incentives, as well as capacity building and guidelines for understanding deep carbon retrofits. Partnerships with private financial institutions, tenants, retrofit providers and building owners is also going to be critical for ramping up the pace of investment.

The government of Canada has led several initiatives that will help transform the Canadian built environment for the better. What can we do to ensure a cascade effect, especially to the private sector?

Governments are an excellent position to drive market transformation by proving there is a market for the investments, demonstrating the risk profile, then finding ways to attract or transfer to private capital sources. This can involve playing a longer-term role to cover costs or risks in order to ensure that the financing is broadly available and at a low enough cost.

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