Green infrastructure: New tool to help construction industry reduce carbon footprint

Originally posted on U of T Engineering News by Tyler Irving.

Professors Brenda McCabe, Daman Panesar, Shoshanna Saxe, Heather MacLean and Daniel Posen (all CivE) are collaborating with companies in construction, building services and engineering consulting to reduce the greenhouse gas impacts of future infrastructure projects. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

 

A team of researchers from U of T Engineering is partnering with the construction industry to help reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, bridges, public transit and other major infrastructure projects.

“What we’re building is a decision-support tool that can be used in the early stages of design and planning,” says Professor Heather MacLean (CivE), one of five U of T Engineering professors involved in the project. “Ultimately, the goal is to produce infrastructure with much lower greenhouse gas impact.”

While green building certification programs have existed for decades, MacLean and her collaborators — including Professors Brenda McCabeDaman PanesarDaniel Posen and Shoshanna Saxe (all CivE) — point out that these are typically considered only toward the end of the design process, when most major decisions have already been made.

“The decisions that have the most impact are the ones that are made early in the process,” says Saxe, who specializes in analysis of transit infrastructure. “These include how big it’s going to be, or what materials it will be made of. Once those are set, it really puts limits on how low the overall emissions can get.”

Nearly a year ago, the team was approached by EllisDon, a major construction and building services company headquartered in Mississauga, Ont. As part of its Carbon Impact Initiative, the company and its partners, including BASF and WSP, are collaborating on projects that aim to elevate efficiency and sustainability in the built environment.

In their early talks, the researchers and industry partners quickly identified science-based decision support in the early stages of project planning as a key strategy for emissions reduction. They plan to analyze data from previously constructed projects and publicly available databases to generate predictive tools.

“Large-scale infrastructure projects are complex, consisting of many different construction activities, along with associated inputs of material and energy,” says MacLean. “We don’t yet have good data about the on-site and supply-chain emissions associated with these inputs, especially those specific to the Ontario context. If we can cut down on that uncertainty, it will greatly help inform these types of decisions.”

Today, the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science announced that the project was among those that received funding through the TargetGHG program, administered by Ontario Centres of Excellence, which supports industry-academic collaborations that will help the province meet more aggressive future GHG targets.

“Supporting the efforts of large industries in their quest to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is an important part of our government’s Climate Change Action Plan,” says Reza Moridi, Minister of Research, Innovation and Science. “With the help of our province’s innovative cleantech companies, the TargetGHG program will help build a prosperous, low carbon economy and create a cleaner, more sustainable future for Ontario.”

In total, the project has attracted more than $2 million in funding from a variety of sources, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) as well as financial and in-kind contributions from the industrial partners.

“Taking steps to reduce the impacts of greenhouse gases and air pollution on our climate and environment is a key priority in Canada,” says Dr. Marc Fortin, Vice-President, Research Partnerships, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. “NSERC is proud to partner with Ontario Centres of Excellence to connect Canada’s top researchers and companies to develop innovative clean technologies that will advance environmental sustainability in Canada and improve the health and quality of life of Canadians.”

“This project is a wonderful example of how our researchers leverage strong collaborations with industry to develop next-generation solutions to society’s most pressing challenges, including climate change,” said Ramin Farnood, Vice-Dean, Research at U of T Engineering. “This tool has great potential to enhance the sustainability of major infrastructure not just here in Ontario, but around the world.”

A second U of T Engineering project, focused on installation and testing of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles, also received funding through the TargetGHG program. Led by Professor Reza Iravani (ECE), it will be carried out in collaboration with energy storage company eCAMION.

MacLean and her team are already looking to recruit the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who will collect and analyze the data, and continue to work closely with their industrial partners as they move forward.

“It’s exciting to be working with partners that are eager to roll out solutions,” says Posen. “We have had great meetings, and we have a strong sense they are looking to turn this research into practical results.”

Infrastructure’s impact: How public transit investments affect our environment

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, equipping policymakers with data as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

 

This story originally appeared at U of T Engineering News

The benefits of building public transit include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, relieving traffic congestion and expanding a growing city. Yet each transit project is unique, and predicting its future effectiveness is difficult. Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) crunches the numbers on existing infrastructure to provide key decision-makers with a ‘reality check’ on the environmental and social impacts of today’s transit investments.

“Engineers usually aren’t involved in policymaking, and policymakers usually aren’t involved in engineering,” says Saxe. “I’m trying to bridge that gap.”

Saxe joined U of T Engineering in August 2016. Before completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, she spent three years at a major consulting engineering firm in Toronto, working on projects such as the Eglinton Crosstown transit line and the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension.

“I love design, it’s amazing,” she says. “However, when you’re building things that people are going to use, you have to stay well within the limits of what you know for sure. I was curious about questions that we didn’t already know the answers to.”

During her PhD, Saxe conducted a detailed analysis of the London Underground’s extension of the Jubilee Line, completed in 1999. She gathered data on the greenhouse gases produced during construction and operation of the line, then used transit and land-use surveys to estimate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to people using the line and living near it. By combining the two, she could calculate the net environmental benefit of that transit project.

“It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag,” she says. “If you make some optimistic assumptions, you could say that it broke even in terms of greenhouse gas emissions around 2012 or 2013. If you are more pessimistic, you’re looking at a greenhouse gas payback of twice as long.”

Saxe says that the Jubilee Line extension sees approximately 175 million trips per year. On projects where ridership is low, the environmental payback period can be much longer. Saxe also studied the Sheppard subway line in Toronto, and found that with a much lower ridership it initially struggled to provide greenhouse gas savings. Over time, the Sheppard Subway Line has benefited from the decreasing emissions associated with electricity in Ontario. The results of the Sheppard Subway study were recently published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

“If you’re at Don Mills station, and you want to go north, east, or even southeast, the network doesn’t serve you yet,” she says. “We still see people from that area driving 70 per cent of the time, so unfortunately there’s just a lot less opportunity for savings.”

Saxe says that her dream project would be to follow a major piece of infrastructure, such as a new transit line, from its conception through construction and use for 20 or 30 years — essentially throughout her career.

“I want to answer questions like: why did we originally build it, how did we originally build it, how did it perform over its lifetime, how did we maintain it and what did it need?” she says. “If we know how our present decision-making affects things decades from now, we can make better decisions.”