Nova Scotia

Retrofits will be key to Nova Scotia's net-zero goal, experts say

As Nova Scotia moves to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, researchers and advocates say the province should be tapping into a piece of underappreciated piece of public infrastructure: private buildings. Officials and organizations in Nova Scotia are putting forward projects and policies that could help pick up the pace.

Projects like modular panels, solar upgrades all part of puzzle

Nick Rudnicki is one of the managing directors of the ReCover initiative. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

As Nova Scotia moves to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, researchers and advocates say the province should tap into an underappreciated piece of public infrastructure: private buildings. 

In Nova Scotia, nearly half of those emissions come from residential and non-residential buildings. It is due to the province's high proportion of older buildings, oil furnaces and carbon-intensive energy grid.

In places like Halifax, the figure is even higher. Seventy per cent of the municipality's emissions come from buildings.

A recent report from Efficiency Canada estimated that it will take nearly a century and a half at current rates to make the country's existing low-rise residential buildings more energy efficient. 

With a need to reduce emissions, officials and organizations in Nova Scotia are putting forward projects and policies that could help pick up the pace.

Modular panels tapped as retrofit solution

One potential model for retrofits is being proposed for an apartment building on Lawrence Street in Halifax. 

Nick Rudnicki, one of the managing directors of the ReCover initiative, said the simple building is the study site for a project that would use modular panels to upgrade the building in a month or less.

Seventy per cent of Halifax's greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. (Dave Irish/CBC)

"We studied it to heck last spring, and we determined that we could build panels that contained the windows, already had all the siding installed, had all the insulation installed, and attach them to the exterior of the building."

This retrofit would make the building net zero without requiring tenants to move out during renovations.

The speed of the approach would accelerate the pace of retrofitting, but it does have one significant barrier.

Upfront cost a barrier

"There's just the sheer cost of it at the moment — the risk that's sort of baked in by it not being a proven concept yet," said Rudnicki.

"You go to lending agencies, you go to granting agencies in the public and private sector, and they're like, 'We don't have paperwork for this.'"

The concept has been proven in other places. However, the ReCover initiative is following a Dutch model called Energiesprong, whereby modular panels, plus rooftop solar arrays and heating upgrades, have been used to make public housing net zero in that country. 

Similar projects are also being tried in other countries, including in Ottawa, where a social housing provider has partnered with Natural Resources Canada on a pilot project involving the installation of prefabricated panels and solar panels on four townhouses.

Rudnicki said he hopes to see more policymakers supporting these kinds of initiatives, including adjusting the funding structure to support extensive retrofits. 

Halifax retrofitting initiative

In Halifax, the municipality is looking at ways to encourage larger retrofits as part of the city's emissions reduction strategy.

Kevin Boutilier, clean energy specialist with the city's environment and climate change division, said in order to meet targets of a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2050, the municipality will have to do deep retrofits (meaning a 50 per cent reduction in energy demand) on all residential and non-residential buildings by 2040.

In July, regional council approved a pilot project that aims to help the city meet this goal, which will operate similar to the Solar City initiative. The city would cover the upfront costs of solar panels and residents would pay them back over 10 years. 

Boutilier says the details are still being worked out, but it will likely cover upgrades such as heat pumps, insulation and transitions to less carbon-intensive heating fuel. The pilot project will also create a position to help residents navigate the retrofit process. 

A worker installs solar panels on the roof of the police station in Halifax in 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The project will fund a maximum of 50 homes at approximately $70,000 each, for a total of $3.5 million. Boutilier said the price tag reflects the fact that they want homeowners to do a full retrofit rather than choosing simpler options such as heat pumps.

"We really want to offer the full package so that the average payback of all the items together is reasonable to property owners."

But in order to meet the city's targets, retrofits will have to scale up significantly from the project's 50 homes to roughly 5,000 a year.  "We don't see the municipality as a bank for that scale," said Boutilier.

He noted that the municipality has also received grant funding to look into how the city could partner with third-party institutions to offer funding for more retrofits. That could include options like the modular approach ReCover is developing. 

"We're 100 per cent open to the technologies that may come to light in the next couple of years," said Boutilier.

An open letter signed by a number of Nova Scotia organizations is also calling for measures at the provincial level, including the adoption of a net-zero building code by 2022, and the elimination of on-site fossil fuels from existing buildings by 2030, with a particular focus on low-income homeowners. 

Change needed at scale that's 'never before been achieved'

Changes are also needed nationally, said Brendan Haley, policy director with Efficiency Canada.

Nova Scotia aims to have a net-zero footprint in less than 30 years. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

"To meet [Canada's] climate change goals, we really have to retrofit buildings at a scale that has never before been achieved." 

Rather than being considered as one-off individual projects, Haley said retrofitting should be thought of as upgrading the country's infrastructure. 

Thinking of retrofits in this way could not only help Canadians understand the collective impact of buildings, but could also help fund upgrades, Haley said — for instance, by grouping a bunch of retrofits together so that they can be financed collectively. 

Cost could run up to $32B per year over 30 years

Even with policies in place, funding retrofits for the country's buildings would be expensive.

Efficiency Canada estimates it would cost up to $32 billion a year over the next three decades. Nonetheless it is essential for the country to meet its commitments on, and prepare for, the effects of climate change, Haley said.

"Something we're really going to have to think about in the future is the role of buildings and adaptation to climate impacts," he said. 

While the retrofit goals proposed by Efficiency Canada — and those set in places like Halifax — are ambitious, Haley said they are achievable, provided the collective impact of individual buildings is acknowledged. 

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