Writing in the dark: Confessions of a Sustainability Officer

Energy conservation at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in the dark in the middle of an empty building, and I love it! Before you think I’ve totally lost my marbles, let me explain.

As the Sustainability Officer at the MTCC, I am tasked with reducing the environmental footprint of the facility. One of the biggest areas of focus is energy conservation; we can consume up to 2,000,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) in a given month, the same as 160 homes do in one year. Now don’t get me wrong, energy conservation is a challenge in any building. But in spaces like convention centres that are used differently every day by many various groups of people, it is a particularly engaging challenge! In an office tower there is a basic schedule of, say, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. where workers will be at their desks, having meetings, etc. Every day has similar activities and number of people moving through the building. This allows the building operations team to have, for example, the same ventilation settings Monday through Friday. Since the same people are coming through the offices too, they can more easily be engaged to turn off their lights and computers at the end of the day.

Not so for convention centres.

These buildings run 24/7 and each day is different from the last. An exhibit hall can host a trade show one day, be used for a keynote speaker address the next, and then be transformed into a beautiful dining room for a fundraising gala to round out the week. Staff works through the night to move chairs, set up decor, prepare the food, and make sure it’s all clean and ready for the next event. The amount of energy required both in human-power and to run the building is mind boggling and truly amazing.

To ensure that we run the tightest ship possible, staff training and engagement is crucial. Our building operators do not have the luxury of reusing the same schedules day in day out. Each day comes with a new set of rooms that are being used by a new volume of people. We also have to make sure that each employee plays their part in conserving energy. Keeping a desk lamp on by accident over the weekend is much different than forgetting to turn off the lights in an exhibit hall. 48,000 kWh, different to be exact.

Making sure we bring in new technologies and give our teams the best tools is also a very important part. For example, the last few years have seen the installation of LED lamps in areas all across the facility – from our emergency stairwells and service corridors to meeting rooms and pre-function areas. One of my favourite retrofits is that of our parking garages. Not only were we able to cut the electrical consumption almost in half, the garages are now brighter and safer for those using these areas. A total win-win situation. It is wonderful and satisfying to see that even with the increase in the number of events year over year, we’ve been able to continuously reduce energy consumption, and with it our carbon footprint. It’s a testament to the great work done by the teams here and the commitment to continuously raising the bar.

I say I like to see a dark building very tongue-in-cheekily, of course. Don’t get me wrong: I love having those few days a year when nothing is happening in the building so we can make up for lost energy – all escalators, lights, fans are off! But let’s be honest, it’s not really a sustainable solution because, you know, without events, well, let’s just say it would be lights out for all of us.

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