Ontario's environment minister is dreaming of a day when all new homes generate as much energy as they use, but the people who build such homes say meeting his target date of 2030 won't be easy.
Glen Murray announced the goal for "net zero carbon" homes in the new provincial climate change strategy in early June. He's promising changes to the building code to come into effect by 2030 at the latest, as well as consultations on how best to achieve the targets.
In Ottawa, Minto Communities has already begun building some net zero homes, including a finished detached home in the company's Arcadia community in Kanata and four townhomes nearing completion.
Minto Communities vice-president Brent Strachan says many people inquire about the net zero option — but the extra cost of the required technology, such as solar panels, deters buyers.
"If you take a single family home for about $300,000, the average price is about 10 to 15 per cent [more] to get these added packages," says Strachan.
"So you're looking at 30-to-45-thousand dollars approximately as an investment. That is a tough one to swallow for people."
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The new Minto homes were built as part of a project led by Natural Resources Canada that involved builders in four provinces.
The Minto homes achieve net zero status in two ways. First, they reduce energy needs of the house with extra insulation, LED lighting and very efficient appliances.
Instead of a traditional furnace, for instance, the home is heated with a system that draws heat from the air.
But the homes also produce energy with rooftop solar panels. While the home takes energy from the grid, the solar panels feed back enough to replace it over the course of a year.
'Billions of dollars'
Dramatically scaling up the number of net zero homes by 2030 will require a major transformation of the grid, according to buildABILITY president Michael Lio, a sustainable building consultant who worked on the federal project.
Lio says he suspects it will take "billions of dollars" to accommodate communities of homes that double as generating plants.
The current grid, says Lio, is like a narrow alleyway, with cars going in one direction.
"What we're calling for is a thoroughfare with traffic in two directions," he says.
There's another issue, Lio says: tradespseople will need more training to build the more technically challenging homes.
Strachan is more focused on potential homebuyers: he'd like to see government rebates for buyers of net zero homes to drive up demand, which in the long term could lead to improvements in the technology and, ultimately, lower prices.
'I think the bigger challenges are with the electricity infrastructure. I suspect it's going to take billions of dollars.' - Michael Lio, president of buildABILITY
In the end, it'll also be up to homebuyers to make sure their new homes actually meet a net zero standard. If the people living in a house aren't frugal with their use of plug-in devices from televisions to dryers, or don't think about their use during peak times, electricity bills could still be a shock.
Lio says the province also needs to be honest about how the availability of natural gas fits into its net zero goals. Prior to the release of the climate change strategy, rumours swirled that the province would ban natural gas, but it didn't happen.
"The expectation that people are going to replace cheap gas with expensive [photovoltaic] electricity, I'm not sure that's going to bear out."
Lio says he doesn't think banning natural gas is the right solution, but adds that net zero homes could better compete in a market where the price of natural gas reflected the full environmental cost of its use.