If there’s one thing environmentalists and building scientists agree on is that Canada must reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to heat interior space and water and to cook food.
The electrification of homes, apartments and commercial buildings is one way of reducing carbon emissions through building operations. Globally, buildings generate about 40 per cent of all CO2 emissions. That’s why pressure is increasing to take the foot off North America’s gas pedal.
It’s not going to be easy.
The good news is the transition has been underway for some time across North America. The not-so-good news are the challenges to electrification: inconsistent jurisdictional regulations; the economic influence of the fossil fuel industry; and the cleanliness of electrical grids across the continent.
As so often, California leads the way. The City of Berkeley banned new gas hook-ups in 2019. Forty-two other California cities have done the same since and the California Energy Commission is considering making the ban state-wide.
No single municipal gas ban has made bigger news than New York City’s decision in early December 2021 to gradually phase out gas hook ups in new buildings beginning over the next two years. Burning gas represents about 70 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
One month later, New York Governor Kathy Hochl gave her support for a state bill that would require new buildings to use zero-emission heat sources by 2027.
In Canada, fossil fuel bans are hit-and-miss.
At the provincial level, Quebec has banned oil heating for new construction projects commencing December 2023. It will also become illegal to replace any heating system with one that is fossil-fuelled, and to repair older heating and hot water systems running on gas or oil. This will reduce the CO2 emissions of some 200,000 homes now using fossil fuels by 50 per cent by 2030.
Of course, Quebec’s transition is made easier by having some of the lowest electricity rates in North America, power that is generated almost entirely from clean sources.
Elsewhere in Canada, the fossil fuel industry is not going down without a fight. In fact, Ontario appears to be working in reverse.
While Toronto joined over 20 other Ontario cities calling on the province to phase out fossil fuels last March, the province turned around and announced $234 million of support for new gas connections in rural and Indigenous communities, some of which were previously heating with electricity.
Incentive plans from the Ontario Energy Board that would cut gas consumption by encouraging the use of geothermal heating and electric heat pumps have also failed to move forward.
Meanwhile, Vancouver is charging ahead on its own.
“As of Jan. 1, 2022…we’re no longer allowing fossil fuels — natural gas being the most common — to be used for heating a home or to heat hot water,” Chris Higgins, the city’s senior green building planner, told the CBC. Vancouver is also incentivising homes built before 1940 with $12,000 grants to switch to heat pumps.
Vancouver also wants any projects still using fossil fuels to switch to Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) either exclusively or in a blend with regular natural gas. RNG, or biomethane, is sourced from landfills, sewage and waste from food, forests and farming.
FortisBC and Ontario’s Enbridge are offering customers blends of natural and RNG at little or no extra charge. However, this might be misleading. Critics charge since no separate gas lines are involved, homeowners won’t actually know if their gas contains any RNG or not. Furthermore, any systemic leakage of methane into the atmosphere could negate the benefit.
Canada is fortunate to have huge reserves of cheap natural gas, certainly when compared to Europe, making the economics of electrification more challenging.
On the other hand, building owners and developers may have their feet taken off Canada’s gas pedal by other factors, such as changing consumer and occupant expectations, and any ESG commitments made by project owners to financiers.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org