Child recycler makes it big: Sadhu Johnston

Sadhu Johnston and Manda Aufochs Gillespie with their daughters, Zella (right) and Zaida (left)

On March 3, 2016 Vancouver City Council announced its selection of Sadhu Johnston as Vancouver City Manager.  A good time to reach into our archives to offer readers this biographical story about Johnston, written in 2010.

Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver's Deputy City Manager, spent hours as a kid sorting wood, pipe and other building materials in the recycling yard of the alternative community in which he was raised. The community didn’t have an environmental ethic but it was frugal in its own way, with members growing some of their own food and building their own houses.

When Johnston’s parents moved into a conventional neighbourhood during his later school years, the contrast in the amount of waste he saw around him blew him away, he said. It inspired him to start a recycling program in his high school and then again in university. “My early life experience around resource efficiency has played a key part in my thinking about what we do and how we do it."

This appreciation for efficiency and practical approaches explains why he lights up when he describes the Southeast False Creek utility, which warms the Olympic Village with heat captured from sewage being piped from downtown, or the East Fraser development which will provide residential warmth with waste heat from an existing trash incinerator.

Such low waste innovation attracted Johnston to Vancouver. “I’m not sure people here realize how much they have to be proud of,” Johnston said. “We’ve got the lowest per capita greenhouse gases of any city in North America. We’re one of the few North American cities on track to meet the Kyoto target out of the 1,200 that signed on. And, as our emissions went down, our population grew by 27% and our jobs grew by 18%.” He attributes Vancouver’s ability to grow its economy while shrinking its emissions in part to hydroelectricity attracting clean industry but also to long range planning that emphasized density and alternatives to driving.

He was attracted to Vancouver by personal connections as well as by the City’s leadership in urban sustainability. “My family moved a lot when we I was growing up, but we came to Vancouver on a regular basis. It became a consistent place for me, with a lot of good memories," he said.

His father, born in Toronto, frequently came to Vancouver for work in the construction industry. He laid the tile in the Mexico Pavillion for Expo and, as Johnston learned months after moving into his townhouse complex, spent thousands of hours working on that building as well.

Johnston’s field of urban sustainability barely existed ten years ago. Now, thousands of professionals have a similar mandate. To accelerate progress in the field, Johnston said that he and his early colleagues founded the Urban Sustainabilty Directors Network to share best practices. The USDN also coordinates between cities on developments such as electric vehicle charging to ensure compatible technologies and holds “boot camps” to help newcomers hit the ground running.

While Johnston shares start-up lessons in governance structure, density and car alternatives with professionals from other cities, he’s implementing the next generation of sustainability planning in Vancouver. This brings us back to Johnston’s passion for efficiencies such as district heating and building retrofits.

District heating can be a double win: greater efficiency through economies of scale in generating all the heat in one location, and use of renewable or waste heat sources like the False Creek and East Fraser district heating projects.

Financing the capital costs of district heating is the challenge. It’s like buying a Toyota Prius with a big up front price tag that masks the unbeatable savings over the vehicle’s lifetime. It’s an economical idea if you can afford it. Many governments enable cleaner, more efficient energy projects by paying the up front capital costs and recouping them in rate payers’ utility bills. For example, Vancouver provided partial financing to the False Creek utility with city bonds that are being repaid through rates billed to its customers. The City of Berkeley pays for solar panel installations and those capital costs get paid back through utility bills. At the end of the payback period, the homeowner owns the system and receives free, clean power.

This year, the City of Vancouver tendered a contract to assess the building and expansion of district heating using renewable energy sources. The assessment will include business as usual scenarios of heating costs for purposes of comparison, technical feasibility of district heating in certain parts of the city and potential financing mechanisms. Compass Resource Management, a Vancouver firm, was awarded the contract.

Johnston is equally keen on building retrofits as a good value. He describes how gas fireplaces in condos often aren’t individually metered. Without a direct cost signal, residents view gas fire places as free. But the fireplaces are inefficient heaters that create carbon emissions. By individually metering them, condo managers can drop gas used for this purpose by 30%, reducing both building costs and carbon pollution. The City plans to provide education and economic incentives for win-win changes such as this and may eventually mandate them. It also plans to provide financial incentive for  private home retrofits with “Property Assessed Clean Energy Bonds” which will be repaid through homeowner utility bills.

Johnston’s unusual childhood primed him to relish the practical particulars that are found on the cutting edge of urban sustainability. “Vancouver plucked the low hanging fruit a long time ago,” he states. “But there’s still huge numbers of efficiencies to be implemented. We’re a world model going to the next level and I hope that the residents of Vancouver take pride in that.”

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