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Eric Labrecque is cleaning up energy in Yukon homes.

At 28, Eric is running the Yukon Conservation Society’s successful Yukon Electric Thermal Storage Demonstration Project, weaning 45 homes off fossil fuels this past year. The project is funded primarily by Natural Resources Canada.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

Living in a small and efficient space, like this tiny house, helps Eric Labrecque reduce his home’s heating needs and carbon footprint. Photo courtesy Eric Labrecque

Tell us about the project.

It takes a lot of energy to keep us warm in the winter! Our electricity comes mostly from hydropower, but particularly during peak load times — winter mornings and evenings, Yukon Energy Corporation (YEC) has had to burn diesel and natural gas to keep the lights on.

We installed ceramic bricks as part of electric thermal storage systems. These get heated at off-peak times and release their warmth throughout the day. They act like a battery, but with no limit on how many times they can charge and discharge. This smooths out the electrical demand and reduces YEC’s need to use fossil fuels. While the project is the first of its kind for the Canadian North, the technology has been successfully used in Alaska and farther south, including in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Do homeowners like the change?

We had over 300 applicants for the 45 spots in our project. Nearly every participant would recommend it to their neighbours. The systems proved efficient and reliable even during the coldest night of the year when the wind chill was -54 C.

At 28, Eric Labrecque is running the Yukon Conservation Society’s successful Yukon Electric Thermal Storage Demonstration Project. #YouthClimateAction
Electric thermal storage (ETS) systems, like this furnace, can heat homes and businesses using electricity from off-peak hours, like overnight. Photo courtesy Yukon Conservation Society

Are there other benefits?

All applicants had a home energy assessment to help improve the energy efficiency of their homes. Often the best thing is to improve a home’s insulation, air-tightness, and windows. It has been great to see people feeling good about taking concrete action to reduce their own dependence on fossil fuels and their carbon footprints. Yukoners love the natural world and we all want to do our part to conserve it for future generations.

At the community level, interest is so strong that a local entrepreneur is exploring making the bricks from local mining waste. We have trained 15 local contractors to do the installations and will train more this year.

Yukon Conservation Society presented our research to the Yukon government, showing our territory could go a long way to meeting its climate commitments using electric thermal storage and cold climate adapted heat pumps. But this would require a redesign of much of the Yukon’s power grid as the current distribution system was designed around fossil fuel use. I was delighted and a bit surprised to see action taken immediately. An in-depth study to find the best path forward for modernizing our grid for electrification of heating and transportation is now fully funded and underway.

How did you get into this work?

In Grade 11, I went with my high school to Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut. I was struck by the dissonance between the community’s connection to the land and its reliance on diesel. Diesel spills regularly, emits greenhouse emissions, is really expensive and its fumes damage their health. I decided right then to devote my career to supporting northern communities’ pursuit of clean-energy sovereignty.

I studied sustainable and renewable energy engineering at Carleton University and received my master’s degree at the University of New Brunswick, focused on remote community energy and electric thermal storage. Along the way, I ended up in the Yukon. I helped design this project while working at Yukon University, so when funding came through to hire a project manager, it seemed made for me.

By attending the Fireweed Community Market each summer, the Yukon Conservation Society strengthens its ties with the community and helps keep Yukoners “in the know” about all the exciting work it is doing, including the electric thermal storage (ETS) project. Photo courtesy Yukon Conservation Society.

What makes your work hard?

I had only managed projects with budgets under $1,000, so taking leadership in this $2-million enterprise was a big leap. We launched our promotional campaign looking for homeowners to volunteer just as the pandemic started and redesigned our entire participation strategy on the fly. I worry that something might go wrong and people who have faith in us will be without heat. It's a big responsibility. But I have a lot of support and everyone is keeping warm.

What’s next for you?

I have joined Yukon Energy to continue my pursuit of a fossil fuel-free future.

How did the way you were raised impact you?

My dad had a habit of throwing out random questions for us to answer creatively. When I was 10, I “designed” an environmentally friendly solar- and wind-powered hovercraft. It would never have worked but I was celebrated for imagining the possibilities. When my high school teacher included me in the Qikiqtarjuaq trip, this entire world opened for me.

Eric Labrecque’s tiny house just outside Whitehorse. He has enjoyed living in this cosy and energy-efficient space since early 2020. Photo courtesy of Eric Labrecque

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Take some time to figure out where your personal and home energy comes from — that’s the first step to reducing your carbon footprint. Then start chipping away at it. Even small actions add up over time.

Climate change touches every part of our lives, so there is a way to harness your passion to help us work on climate change.

What about older readers?

While we may not be a big jurisdiction in the Yukon, we can lead by example. Remember that local actions can have a ripple effect across Canada and around the world.

Keep reading

Is the $2M exhausted by 45 homes, so that the conversions cost $44,000 each?