What On Earth

Homeowners and towns partner to take CO2 out of home heating

Reducing the carbon footprint of homes across Canada is no easy task. What role does home heating play? Individual homeowners and community-lead initiatives are taking action to make a difference.

But policy expert says sustained support from industry, governments needed to help reach net-zero targets

Members of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, B.C., install electric heat pumps in one of the community's homes. Many houses there previously relied on diesel, which can be expensive to ship to the rural community. (Ecotrust Canada)

When Ian Manning and his wife moved into their new home in Berwick, N.S., three years ago, it came with a relic from the past: a nearly 30-year-old furnace running low on oil.

Getting a new oil furnace would cost about $3,000. So in January 2019, hoping to reduce their carbon footprint and save money in the long run, the couple replaced it with an energy-efficient electric heat pump — and they were able to do it thanks to a loan from the town.

"When we moved into the house, we were both keen on reducing our … reliance on fossil fuels," Manning told What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

"By switching to electricity, we could really cut out a lot of the greenhouse gases there."

According to 2017 data from Statistics Canada, 43 per cent of homes in Canada are heated with natural gas. They're billed as cleaner than coal or oil, but nearly 18 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions come from heating our buildings.

Some homeowners like Manning are switching to electric heating systems to do their part to reduce emissions even further than the oil-to-natural gas shift. But it can come with a high price tag — Manning said the bill for their retrofit reached $16,000.

When Ian Manning and Mary-Claire Sanderson bought their house in Berwick, N.S., 3 years ago, they took up an offer of a loan from the town to replace its aging oil furnace with an electric heat pump. (Submitted by Ian Manning)

That's when the town of Berwick stepped in. Its Green Energy Program offered to finance a homeowner's new heat pump with a loan, letting them pay it back over 10 years.

Manning said he's seen "pretty significant savings" in their energy bill. He and his wife expect to pay the loan back before 10 years are up. 

He also appreciated that the change gave him a break on their home insurance rate.

"The insurance company is a lot happier to not have giant barrels of oil in people's basement that could spill when they're being filled up or just become compromised over time," Manning explained.

He's not the only one to take up Berwick's offer.

A representative from Equilibrium Engineering — the N.S.-based energy firm who partnered with Berwick's Green Energy Program — told What on Earth the firm completed 27 residential retrofits before the program was merged into a bigger one encompassing other Nova Scotia municipalities.

Efforts need to 'triple' or more: expert

Getting the up-front costs covered made the difference for Manning's efforts to lower his household's carbon footprint — but that kind of help isn't available everywhere.

"Most Canadian provinces are lagging behind fairly significantly compared to even some of the leading American states on energy savings," said Brendan Haley, policy director of Efficiency Canada, an organization working to find ways we can use our energy more effectively.

Haley says programs like Berwick's home retrofitting loan are just one part of the wider and complex battle to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions in the hope of meeting the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

"The more we can save electricity in those homes, the more we free up a lot of the clean electricity we have in Canada to then power other types of low-carbon solutions, such as electric transportation and also electric heating."

Manning and Sanderson's home after it was retrofitted with an electric heat pump, some time after Jan. 2019. (Submitted by Ian Manning)

Haley commended Nova Scotia's "political commitment" to energy efficiency, and said other communities are working on similar retrofitting initiatives, such as a retrofitting project in an Edmonton co-op.

But he cautioned that these retrofitting efforts will need to "at least triple, and likely more" in the long term to make a significant dent in total emissions from buildings across the country.

"We really have to think about this as a mission that we have to tackle over the next number of decades, not just the three-year stimulus program," he said.

Sustained support for these projects, he added, would help stimulate local economies with local retrofitting jobs, in addition to chipping away at communities' total carbon footprints.

Natural gas furnaces, like the one seen here along with a hot water heater and air conditioning system in New York, are billed as cleaner than coal or oil. But unlike a fully electric solution, they're not net-zero. (Craig Ruttle/The Associated Press)

The federal government, for its part, has pledged to provide $2.6 billion over seven years in as many as 700,000 grants of up to $5,000 each, "to help homeowners make energy-efficient improvements to their homes."

It also committed to working with provincial and territorial retrofit programs, particularly those that help retrofit low-income households.

Retrofitting homes, including buying heat pumps or adding improved insulation, can be pricey for many households who already struggle just to pay their heating bills — a phenomenon known as energy poverty.

"If people can't afford their heating bills, or if they feel that their heating bills are a significant energy burden for them, they might … forego other necessities, or they may choose not to heat to a comfortable temperature … and live in an uncomfortable home," said Maryam Rezaei, a researcher and consultant on energy equity and access in Canada.

More than just discomfort, this can lead to physical or mental health issues. The lack of heating, she said, can also contribute to things like mould in the home, exacerbating these problems.

Help for remote communities, First Nations

Rezaei noted that energy poverty can affect a diverse range of people in Canada, including remote and rural areas and "off-grid areas where they might be diesel-dependent, and the cost of energy is considerably higher."

Until recently, that described members of the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, B.C. Now they're saving thousands of dollars per year after installing electric heat pumps in dozens of their homes, replacing their previous oil or diesel furnaces

A representative for Ecotrust Canada, the non-profit organization that worked with the Heiltsuk Nation to install the heat pumps, says they've saved each household an average of $1,650 per year.

They hope to have 129 heat pumps installed by the end of March, making up nearly a third of homes in the community.

’Qátuw̓as Brown is community engagement coordinator for the Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) Climate Action Team. (Hilary Cagey/Submitted by Qatuwas Brown )

'Qátuw̓as Brown, community engagement coordinator for the Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) Climate Action Team, says moving away from relying on diesel fuel, in particular, reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by five tonnes per household per year.

It's also better aligned with her community's values and collective philosophy.

"It's about connecting back to our ancestral ways, our original ways of being in … relationship with Earth and with one another. And using renewable energy is actually a way to honour that relationship," she said.

"We want to give back to our place as much as we take from it."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Molly Segal.

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