Thicker insulation may not be the first thing one imagines as a top solution to climate change (heck, it probably doesn’t even crack the top five list).
But a new collaboration of Canadian environmental organizations want to change that via the development of a national energy efficiency strategy that focuses on constructing and retrofitting buildings.
Earlier this week an open letter was sent to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, signed by 11 groups including the Pembina Institute, Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, Environmental Defence and Architecture Canada.
New Standards Requested
The requests, all tied to meeting the 2030 emissions targets recently set in Paris, are certainly lofty.
Revamp the national building code. Conduct deep energy retrofits in the form of energy reduction (between 25 and 50 per cent) of 30 per cent of buildings. Create a vast system of rebates, financing and loan guarantees.
It doesn’t stop there: the collective also called for the proliferation of universal standards for appliances, making data more publicly available and understandable via consumer feedback systems, and ensuring that buildings owned by the federal government lead by example with retrofits of their own.
All up, there are dozens of recommendations. They’re not kidding around.
“Despite the complexity of the industry, it’s one of the easiest things to do,” says Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, a senior advisor for the Pembina Institute who specializes in building efficiency.
“We know how to do it, it puts money back into the pocket of homeowners and businessowners. And that money, because it tends to be redeployed locally, means the economic benefits of energy efficiency are important.”
Half of Toronto’s Emissions Come From Home and Buildings
To be sure, many organizations concerned with energy efficiency have long pushed for such goals. After all, a quarter of national emissions come from energy consumption in buildings, making it a very significant source of carbon dioxide. In Toronto, half the emissions come from homes and buildings; in Calgary, that number is pegged at 55 per cent.
But this particular combo of forces is notable, especially given the moves that both provincial and federal governments are attempting to make to meet emissions targets.
“The technology is ready,” says Frappé-Sénéclauze. “We have low-energy buildings from residential homes built to passive house standards — or net-zero even — all the way to more complex buildings to LEED certification and Living Building Challenge.
“We have a fair number of high-performance buildings: it’s just a question of bringing that savoir faire and that technology to the bulk of buildings worth building,” he says.
Incentives Key to Retrofits
As indicated by Frappé-Sénéclauze, there are two distinct issues at play: constructing new buildings and retrofitting existing stock.
The latter is arguably the more difficult of the duo.
Bryan Purcell — director of policy at the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, an arm-length agency of the City of Toronto — says the municipality has a limited set of tools to address it, as existing buildings are privately owned and can’t legally require owners to act.
However, Purcell notes that governments can offer financial incentives and educational tools in an attempt to encourage action: for instance, energy audits of homes can be subsidized by governments, something the Alberta NDP is currently in the process of implementing.
“For most building owners — whether it’s a homeowner or a larger building — energy consumption and climate change is not a primary motivation for their actions,” he says.
“It’s very hard to get people to make the leap to all the work involved, putting aside the expense: just the effort to decide to do major improvements to home or building and plan out what those are, and procure and execute them.”
Federal Government Has Power to Standardize Many Household Appliances
Purcell says it’s a matter of figuring out what might motivate a resident or business owner: cost savings, climate change, corporate social responsibility or something else. And then acting on it.
Often the solution requires funding to counteract the high upfront costs and long paybacks required for deep efficiencies.
“The federal government’s really got the financial resources to do that more than any other level of government,” Purcell says.
There are other ways to approach the issue, too.
Frappé-Sénéclauze says that demands of household appliances, known in the industry as “plug loads,” can be addressed via universal standards. There could be an expectation, for instance, that every new fridge is 10 to 15 per cent more efficient than the last model.
For while it’s not something we probably spend much time thinking about, the federal government has been involved with equipment standards for almost every appliance in our home or workplace: boilers, air conditioning units, lights, fans, fridges and TVs.
There was a five- or six-year delay on that front under the previous federal government, Purcell says. That can change very quickly, he says, harnessing tools like the EnerGuide Rating System and Energy Star Portfolio Manager to ensure a base level of efficiency.
Information plays a great part of this. In many cases, it can be tricky for owners and other stakeholders just to get reliable data on everything from how much energy they use, to how that translates into carbon dioxide, to how much potential they have to reduce emissions. And thus, how to choose certain appliances or retrofits for their buildings.
That’s where a “national vision” comes in.
‘We Need All Of This To Happen Faster Than What We’ve Seen Before’
But such a vision must be accompanied by action on new buildings. Because whether municipalities choose to continue sprawling or rezone for infills, there will be new buildings as populations continue to rise.
Codes are ultimately interpreted by and written by the provinces. But the guiding material is written up by the federal government.
In some cases, the province can even extended a “stretch code” to allow local governments to mandate more energy efficiency than the base code. The Toronto Atmospheric Fund is currently in discussion with the city about a timeline for when it could drive the local standards to net zero (an agreement will likely come out in early 2017, Purcell says).
A move that requires new buildings to have nearly energy by 2030 would almost certainly need to come from Ottawa, representing a single, large push that helps proliferate a standard of passive homes and zero energy buildings.
“We’ve had energy efficiency improvements over the last few codes,” Frappé-Sénéclauze says. “It’s not something that’s new. What’s new is the pace of change. We need all of this to happen faster than what we’ve seen before, and that’s going to stress the system.”
There’s some pushback each time there’s a code change, he says. Part of it’s because many construction companies are small entities: in B.C., nine of every 10 have fewer than ten employees. Retraining may be required. Rapid change can be undesirable, to say the least.
Industry Can’t Be Blindsided
That’s why there has to be plenty of notice given prior to such a change, Frappé-Sénéclauze says. What annoys industry more than anything is “to be blindsided and to have things happen at the last minute in a rushed manner.”
Because it’s not just about the actual construction of the home or building. The industry is massively distributed and intensely complex, meaning that changing one thing (for instance, the standard of insulation or doors used) will send ripples down the chain of contractors and manufacturers.
“The supply chain gets ready if there’s clarity of where the codes are going,” he says. “And if the supply chain is there, the cost of components decrease and the cost of the improvement decreases. A lot of this is managing just the stress of change.”
Another key thing to remember is that codes were originally designed as representing the worst possible building that can be built, akin to the minimum wage of construction.
Frappé-Sénéclauze emphasizes they were never meant to drive innovation — just to safeguard against the potential dangers around accessibility, safety and fire protection.
Improving Energy Efficiency a Win-Win
In other words, a new national code won’t save the day. It has to be accompanied by “programs to support the leaders and a code to ratchet up to catch the laggards.”
And there are dozens of those kicking around. An Alberta-focused report published by the Pembina Institute in 2014 provided a long list of practices including mandatory building energy labelling, energy audit grants, energy efficiency financing paid via bills, home energy reports, real-time energy feedback and efficiency rebates.
Other jurisdictions provide inspiration too, with France working on energy positive buildings that include on-site generation. Europe’s aiming for nearly zero energy by 2020, Frappé-Sénéclauze says, with California and Washington State representing similar goals.
After all, Canada is at least in the preliminary phases of making many major moves on the climate change front. It would seem a bit of a waste to eventually generate so much electricity by solar, or wind, or geothermal, or biomass for it to only leak out of buildings that aren’t properly insulated or wasted by appliances that don’t feature state-of-the-art efficiency standards.
“I’m sure whatever they do won’t be perfect: there’s always room for improvement,” says Purcell, noting that other climate mitigation issues can result in a lot more divisive regional equity issues.
“But this is something the federal government can act on that benefits people in all areas of the country equally and can generate employment and economic benefits. There’s really no-one who loses out when we improve energy efficiency in buildings.”
Image: Earth Day green building tour in Vancouver. Photo: Pembina Institute via Flickr