Despite recent price increases, gas heating is still so cheap that it’s going to be hard to break the habit.

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You may have seen recent media warnings that the price of natural gas is skyrocketing.

As COP26 enters its final week, those trying to help Canadians meet our climate commitments and prevent the world from overheating have a different perspective. The problem with fossil methane – the main component of natural gas – they say, is not that it is expensive, but that it is always so cheap.

It is also efficient, reliable and in millions of Canadian homes. And at least at the combustion stage, research shows it’s cleaner and much less greenhouse gas-intensive than other alternatives to fossil fuels.

Some, including former Conservative federal finance minister Joe Oliver, now chairman of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, oppose the decision to stop using natural gas, saying it will be overpriced and doomed.

But there is a problem. It depends on how you calculate it, but most numbers show space heating comes after oil and gas production and road transportation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Among the heat sources, natural gas is the largest producer of GHGs partly because it is so widely used. To reach net zero by 2050, experts say we must stop heating with gas.

The warm glow of a gas furnace in a home in Toronto, one of the millions of people in Canada who emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gas is not only cheap, but it is efficient and its widespread use will make it difficult to move without government regulations. (Wendy Martinez / Don Pittis / CBC)

Despite battling a powerful industry lobby, deep-rooted infrastructure, consumer familiarity and tough economic issues, a group of committed Canadians are starting to shake things up on the consumption of natural gas that makes so many of them. we comfortable in the cold climate of Canada.

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Sheena Sharp, a Toronto architect whose firm Coolearth has specialized in low-carbon and low-energy design since 2008, is one of those who dread it won’t be easy. This is because the reduction of natural gas faces a difficult economic reality. Sharp said that since the oil and gas industry developed hydraulic fracturing, or hydraulic fracturing, providing an abundance of new and inexpensive natural gas from formerly “dry” geology, programs to reduce it. use is simply not cost effective.

Won’t pay for the windows

“Saving half of something that isn’t very expensive doesn’t give you a lot of money to gamble,” Sharp said in a recent phone conversation.

In other words, if your gas bill is around $ 1,000 a year, even doing something as simple as replacing old leaky windows – although that will probably put you over the edge. comfortable – may never pay back your capital investment.

Sharp has said that even at its peak, years from now, carbon taxes will only partially offset the cost of redeveloping an old building to make it net zero. Sharp’s primary customers are businesses or public institutions that see public relations value in demonstrating that they are taking action on climate change.

Heating buildings in Canada’s cold climate is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the oil and gas industry and transportation. (Government of Canada)

She has a few homeowner customers with money set aside to spend for their conscience and comfort, but if that doesn’t increase the sale price, most of the rest will stick with natural gas. Most companies that face their competition are unwilling to embark on a low-carbon retrofit that could put them at a financial disadvantage, she said.

“After you’ve made the fruit at hand, which is basically changing light bulbs and installing more efficient gas boilers,” Sharp said, “most energy efficient measures are quite expensive.”

That’s why she and many others who are trying to get Canadians off natural gas say the only solution is regulation by municipal or provincial governments that create a level playing field for businesses and homeowners, at the same time. that they create a whole new industry that will make fuel-switching increasingly cheap and easy.

Leading the charge towards carbonless

This is exactly what the City of Vancouver is doing, and Chris Higgins, the city’s senior green building planner, is one of those leading the charge. Vancouver is one of many Canadian cities to declare a climate emergency, and its first step, Higgins said, was to target new constructions and major renovations, the step in the manufacture of climate-friendly buildings is the cheapest and offers the greatest profitability. And he’s moving fast.

“Vancouver as a city, we have our own building code,” Higgins said in a telephone interview. “As of January 1, 2022 … we no longer allow the use of fossil fuels – natural gas being the most common – to heat a home or heat hot water.”

That delay is in less than two months, and it comes with other conditions, including thick insulation, triple-glazed windows, a draft-free building envelope, and ventilation that recovers heat from the air. evacuated.

Chris Higgins, responsible for planning green buildings in Vancouver, poses with his new heat pump that he says will draw heat from the outside air down to -25 ° C. (City of Vancouver)

Overall, he said, the requirements will mean that newly built homes will use 90 percent less energy to heat compared to homes built in 2007. And that means the cost of heating decreases in importance.

In fact, the majority of those new homes, small and medium, will cost less to heat than older homes that use gas, Higgins said.

Experts like Katya Rhodes at Institute for Integrated Energy Systems in Victoria say a healthy support network of local businesses is already growing to do the job and that BC community colleges are forming a new generation of specialists.

Target existing homes

But Higgins and his team aren’t happy with the climate protection of the 1,000 or so low-rise homes the city is building in a year. Shortly after the council passed the new housing policy just before the pandemic, Higgins began work on the existing housing policy.

Homes built before 1940, when few homes were isolated, are the biggest challenge, Higgins said, but Heritage Vancouver offers grants and support to renovate older homes.

The city is also offering a $ 12,000 grant to any homeowner wishing to shut off the gas and install a heat pump, a device like an inverted refrigerator that concentrates heat from the outside air using a fraction of the electricity. a standard baseboard heater.

Higgins, whose house was built in 1905, heats with a Mitsubishi H2i heat pump which reduces electricity consumption by two-thirds and can continue to draw heat from the outside air down to –25 C. Below, in colder climates, the device is completed by an electric radiant heater.

Despite temperatures dropping to -50C, Whitehorse has been a leader in imposing strict rules for residential buildings, aiming to reach net zero by 2050. (Dave Croft / CBC)

Critics in colder places might complain that Vancouver, where temperatures rarely drop below –8 C, has it easy.

But cooler cities, including Halifax in particular, are also leaders, particularly in the use of heat pump technology.

What about Higgins’ model for his building code plan? It’s Whitehorse, where temperatures typically drop to -50C, a city that released its first climate-friendly building code in 2009 and has steadily tightened the rules since, city engineer Nick Marnik said, although the homes are not connected to Canada’s natural gas grid.

At COP26, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to reduce emissions from Canada’s largest GHG generator, the oil and gas sector itself. As technology improves and costs come down, electric cars seem destined to be scrapping gasoline engines.

But as Architect Sharp noted, while people turn their cars over on average every 15 years, any buildings you can see out of the window now will likely still be there in 2050, a time when Canada s. is committed to achieving net zero.

As Vancouver has demonstrated, the private sector has the skills and the technology to achieve this goal. But in places like Toronto, Sharp said, the lack of government rules that would spur the virtuous circle of better technology and a faster transition means increases in energy efficiency have slowed at a breakneck pace.

“It is essential that (…) the government make a decision and it is essential that it does so quickly,” said Sharp.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


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