Housing and climate change are two top priorities for most Canadians. As the world transitions towards renewable energy systems, there is a great opportunity to improve both the quality of Canada’s housing stock and the energy profile of our buildings. A national standard on “energy positive” homes would help to guide the integration of renewable energy systems into buildings across the country.
An energy positive building standard means that new buildings would incorporate best-in-class insulation along with renewable energy systems - each building would produce more energy than it consumes. Providing such a standard for new buildings across the country would help create jobs, save money for heavily-indebted Canadian households, and drive the innovation necessary to improve economic productivity and boost growth.
Existing standards lack ambition
Canada already has a National Energy Code for Buildings that provides clear guidelines on building energy efficiency, but it is not ambitious enough. Programs like Natural Resources Canada’s Zero Net Energy pilot project are just experiments. Existing regulations and programs do not acknowledge the rapid integration of housing, energy, and digital technology systems. As home battery systems become connected to electric vehicles, appliances, and local micro-grids, the energy transition looks more and more like a digital revolution. It is time for forward-looking policy to ensure that Canadian business and skilled workers can lead this transformation.
For inspiration on more efficient buildings, Canada can look to other jurisdictions that are well on the way to implementing “energy positive” standards for all new buildings.
Now is the time to act
Global action on energy positive buildings is accelerating because of the rapidly declining cost of renewable energy and a global consensus on the transition to net zero emissions. In North America, the cost of onshore wind power has dropped 60 per cent, and the cost of new solar by 80 per cent, just since 2009. Prices continue to fall. Other technologies like geothermal heating and cooling are experiencing a renaissance both for individual buildings and whole neighbourhoods.
The falling cost of renewable energy systems means that all new buildings in Canada could be built to zero net energy standards, with property developers and their investors encouraged to build energy positive homes and commercial buildings that will serve the best long-term financial interests of their tenants and the environment.
Transitioning to zero net energy buildings in California
South of the border, the states of New York and California are already taking action. In California all new residential buildings will be zero net energy (ZNE) by 2020 and all new commercial buildings will be ZNE by 2030. A ZNE building is one that produces at least as much energy as it consumes. In New York state, entire subdivisions are heated and cooled geothermally. Geothermal heat pumps efficiently heat and cool homes and offices without burning fossil fuels, using the constant temperature underground as a heat source in winter and a heat sink in summer. Given Canada’s expertise in geothermal energy there is a great opportunity to link housing policy and commercial building codes with the deployment of clean energy systems.
The sun shines on Europe’s energy positive buildings
In Europe, all EU member states have published national ZNE plans for residential and commercial buildings. France and Germany have taken things one step further to push for energy positive building standards and industrial innovation. French and German policymakers have realized that low renewable energy prices and consumer demand mean that the key barriers to energy positive building standards are political rather than economic. The French and German experience show that when local and national politicians come together to create unified standards, property markets, investors, and home builders respond. This is what Canada needs.
Progress is already happening in cities like Leduc, Alberta. Leduc, the site of one of Alberta's first major oil discoveries, has installed Canada’s largest rooftop solar array. Alberta and the other prairie provinces are blessed with the sunniest weather in the country, making them a great place to start the rooftop solar build-out.
If some of the largest US states and all EU members have strong ZNE and energy positive building standards to guide property developers and investors in sector, isn't it time Canada had a similar framework? There is a powerful opportunity for Canada’s world-leading academic and industrial researchers to support the transformation of our buildings into digitally networked clean energy systems.