The Toronto Star
By Howard Akler Special to the Star
By the first week of June, Canada lost four million hectares to wildfires. In the first week of July, the world recorded its four hottest days ever. The existential threat of climate change has forced many to reconsider all manners of consumption. Some are trying to eat more plant-based foods. Others taking fewer car trips. In real estate, where much talk is of the market heating up or cooling down, those words might be more importantly applied to the homes themselves.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much this contributes to our overall carbon footprint,” says How-Sen Chong, of the non-profit Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA). “Heating and cooling from the building sector makes up more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto.”
Many households looking to reduce their carbon footprint often start with small energy-efficient solutions, such as upgrading attic insulation and resealing windows and doors. But, in truth, nothing can decarbonize a house as much as swapping out a gas furnace for an electric alternative.
“We tell our clients that the first thing to do is get off natural gas, and, after that, financially-speaking, go as big as you comfortably can,” says Melodie Coneybeare, senior architect at Solares Architecture, a business that specializes in sustainable homes.
Air-source heat pumps are becoming more appealing for many homeowners, with over 700,000 units in use across the country, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). An air-source heat pump absorbs ambient heat in the outside air and pushes it back inside to warm up the house. NRCan studies show there is enough heat in -18C air to provide 85 per cent of warmth needed to maintain indoor temperature at a cosy 21C. Heat pumps also act as an air-conditioner, drawing warm air out of the house in the summer months. And, because it simply moves heat, rather than generating it, the heat pump is incredibly efficient, cutting energy use in half. Costs vary depending on brand and size, but it can add up to to anywhere between $15,000 to $25,000 for purchase and installation. Those on more constrained budgets tend to opt for a hybrid version, which relies on a gas furnace only when the mercury is consistently below -5ºC. This system, at about $3,000, can still reduce overall gas consumption 40 per cent.
All the numbers can make for messy calculations. Upfront capital costs, partially offset by government grants, need to be checked against long-term operational savings, which, in turn, are influenced by the volatile cost of gas and the steady rise of carbon pricing.
One Solares client surprised himself by going all-electric. When Nuno Ferreira was thinking about building a laneway house behind his parents’ Trinity Bellwoods home, his focus wasn’t on his carbon footprint. He and his wife, Joana Quiterio, simply wanted their two young children to grow up close to their grandparents. But, when they looked over the engineer’s report, which calculated a heat pump would result in a 70-per-cent reduction in GHG emissions compared to a gas furnace, the choice of appliance factored in their decisions.
"Looking at heat pumps wasn’t our top priority, to be honest. But, the more we talked about it, the more it made sense.”
The family moved into their two-storey, 1,200-square-foot home in March 2021. They pay $300 more each year in utilities than if they relied on gas, but Ferreira says the extra cost is definitely worth it.
“Our kids have a home with clean air.”
Beyond appliances are larger holistic options, such as the net zero home, which produces as much energy as it consumes, can cost an additional $60,000 on top of the house’s base price. The Passive House is an air tight marvel, requiring far less energy to keep it warm or cool. Installation of high-end insulation can be up to $200 per square foot and leads to slightly less interior living space and requires beautiful brick exteriors to be covered in favour of more efficient cladding.
And, of course, hanging over every choice is the capacity of Ontario’s power grid. The Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO) reports that demand will increase 1.7 per cent annually, meaning the province’s current supply can meet its needs until the mid-2030s. In the meantime, the Ford government, which cancelled 758 renewable energy projects in 2018, has been scrambling to get ready for the upcoming surge. Two months ago, the IESO announced the grid, among the cleanest in the world, will help bridge the gap by relying on a two-to-four-per-cent increase in gas use over the next few years.
Despite this, TEA’s Chong is encouraged by the commitment he’s seen from individuals and communities.
“The electric revolution is phenomenal. All the tech is so much more efficient than burning fuel, and it’s also getting more and more accessible and more and more affordable. I’ve been working on climate issues for 20 years, and, despite the heat domes and the wildfires and everything else, I can honestly say I’ve never been more optimistic.”
This was reposted from the Toronto Star
It was originally published on July 22, 2023