Tackling climate change from above

Tackling climate change from above

Markham company QEA Tech uses drones to conduct its in-depth energy audits, which helps building managers improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

It was a cold January night in 2021 when Amir Ashrafizadeh heard the shouts. The drone operator was conducting an audit of a 15-storey residential building on Queen Street in Toronto, capturing more than 1,500 thermal and visual images. The process was going smoothly — until a confused tenant called the police.

“I didn’t blame him,” says Ashrafizadeh. “It was two in the morning, and he saw these flashing lights outside his window and some guy on the ground with a remote control. Happily, Ashrafizadeh’s paperwork was in order, so when the police arrived, he says, “they realized I wasn’t some creep.”

Far from it. Ashrafizadeh is the senior operations manager for QEA Tech, a Markham, Ont.–based startup that uses drones to conduct energy audits of building envelopes — the spaces from the interior walls outward to the cladding, roof and glazing that make up the structure’s exterior. Window leaks, cracks and poor insulation can result in the overuse of heating and air conditioning systems.

By identifying those issues and quantifying the resulting energy loss, the aim is to help building managers improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. That night at the Queen Street apartment building, Ashrafizadeh found nearly 150 areas of concern —“not counting the one from the tenant,” he adds.

Toronto’s buildings are responsible for 58 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, slightly above the global average. A significant portion of that comes from energy loss through the building envelope, making audits and retrofits essential for a city that plans to be net zero by 2040.

“We’re going to have trouble meeting our climate targets if we don’t fix our buildings,” says Peyvand Melati, the CEO of QEA Tech. “An energy-efficient heating and cooling system is great, but if the building envelope is leaky, then all that efficiency literally goes out the window.”

Traditional audits rely on blower door tests, which pressurize each floor to measure air leakage. But these audits can be intrusive and costly and require weeks to complete. By contrast, QEA Tech drones are sent on pre-programmed flights in the morning and at night to measure a building’s performance at different times of day.

Equipped with high-resolution thermal and visual cameras that capture thousands of images, a single drone needs less than three hours to collect data from a one-million-square-foot building. The images are then uploaded to the company’s proprietary AI software, which creates a 3D model of the building that is accurate up to a few centimetres. This precision not only allows Melati’s team to pinpoint cracks and moisture penetration, but also to quantify the amount of energy lost.

“What makes us unique is how we’re able to translate these issues into actual dollar figures,” says Melati, an electrical engineer by training who established himself in the cleantech sector through the success of his previous IOT and solar ventures. “There’s always been a perception in the industry that there’s a very long payback time for retrofits. Now, we can run through all the different scenarios for retrofit options and accurately identify savings.”

Since launching four years ago, QEA Tech has completed energy audits of more than 500 buildings around the world, including 42 public libraries in Brooklyn. Their findings have shown that fully upgrading the building envelope not only lowers greenhouse gas emissions, they can also reduce energy costs by as much as 80 per cent. However, even just replacing all the windows on a high-rise can cost millions, so building managers often use the findings to target the upgrades with the highest return on investment.

Data-driven decisions will become all the more necessary considering much of Canada’s building stock comes from the 1980s and ’90s — before the establishment of LEED standards — and will still be in use in 2050, the country’s net-zero deadline. “If we want to meet those objectives, we need to not only build new buildings better,” says Peter McArthur, the national cleantech lead at RBCX. “But in a greater order of magnitude, we need to retrofit the huge inventory of existing buildings to make them more efficient.”

This past March, QEA Tech completed its biggest project: two commercial districts in Ottawa, consisting of more than 200 privately owned buildings. Janice Ashworth, a section manager in the city’s Climate Change and Resiliency office, says the plan is to create a public record of energy consumption. A full report will come later in the year. “There’s no road map for what we have to do. QEA Tech was uniquely qualified for this project — their ability to quantify massive amounts of data will help us develop a policy around the findings.”

Because people, buildings and infrastructure are so densely concentrated in cities, it makes urban centres particularly vulnerable to the increasing dangers of climate change. Flash floods, major storms and heat waves can affect millions of lives and cost billions of dollars. This is where innovative approaches are needed. But, startups like Melati’s are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to selling their services. While 80 percent of procurement in Canada is done by municipalities, many lack the financial resources to make competitive bids and city staff are often wary of new technology.

“Aversion to risk is a huge barrier to the adoption of innovation. Despite the incredible benefits we’ve seen from new technologies, people still tend to go for the tried and true,” says McArthur. “Every day, we hear another declaration of a climate emergency, but how on earth will that do anything unless we overcome our reluctance to try something new?”

McArthur says one driver of change is the adoption of energy benchmarking requirements, which will make reporting water and energy use mandatory. Dozens of American cities already have these programs in place. New York City Local Law 97, for example, penalizes building operators US$268 for every tonne of carbon dioxide above the legal limit. “It can end up costing a significant amount of money,” says McArthur. “It’s a very heavy stick.”

Canadian cities are taking a gentler approach. Ottawa’s program, which is voluntary for buildings over 20,000 square feet in size, forgoes penalties in favour of incentives, such as a 20 per cent discount on QEA Tech’s services. Benchmarking in Toronto, set to begin in summer 2024, will be mandatory for buildings 6,000 square feet and larger.

Whatever the regulatory framework, Melati sees plenty of opportunities to scale up. “There are about 16 million buildings in Canada alone,” he says. “There’s a lot more for us to do.”

QEA Tech is one of seven companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions.

Illustration: Monica Guan; Images: Unsplash