Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis by June 3

Goal: $100k
$43,026

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.

Keep reading

Right on the money, Hamish. At the same time, we need to modernize to focus on reducing overall footprint and toxicity. Straw bale construction, green roofs, triple glazing, etc. The increasing use of polystyrene in various forms like insulation, despite the overwhelming proof that it is carcinogenic is alarming and products are not being labelled with even the basic warnings. Municipalities are now using plastic lines for water and even plumbers are using PEX pipe for sinks, yet these are not designed or even rated safe for drinking water! We should have composting toilets, grey water as well as rain water collection for outdoor watering and we need to end the high maintenance/water/chemical use lawns that do nothing for nature. There are native short grasses needing 2 mowings/year, no water beyond what falls from the sky and no fertilizer (one is called Ecolawn) that should be required for new lawns, but mostly we need to get people planting native shrubs as well as trees in yards, communities and especially along waterways.

If Victoria and area legislated composting loos and grey water reuse, they could give generous subsidies to help switch over, save a lot of water, save a fortune on underground and treatment facilities, clean up a nasty problem along with their reputation and have even better flowers in years to come. If 15% of existing users + all new or renovating change over every year, it would soon be done. The amount of water not fit for reuse would be small and the closest treatment plant could be paid to treat it.

Thanks for the comment. Legacy approaches to wastewater management leave lots of room for improvement and efficiency gains. It would be great to read more about alternative models for Victoria's system.

I think this article offers an incomplete, even superficial, picture of the problem of solar electric power generation. It seems to ignore the fundamental question of the selection of the most economical, expeditious and environmentally sound approach to solar power generation and distribution. Rather, it seems to merely assume that distributed generation should be pursued aggressively, rather than centralized production at large solar farms that benefit from economies of scale. It is far from obvious that this is the case.

Prof. Severin Borenstein of U. Cal. Berkeley published an article in the 2015 Berkeley Blog discussing the pros and cons: "Is residential solar really the future of electricity generation?" Among his findings are are "I don’t think my house should be energy independent any more than it should be food independent or clothing independent. Advanced economies around the world have gotten to be advanced economies by taking advantage of economies of scale, not by encouraging every household to be self-sufficient."… "But distributed generation also has some serious drawbacks. The first and foremost is that design, installation and maintenance of solar PV small rooftop by small rooftop costs a lot more per kilowatt-hour generated than grid-scale solar, probably about twice as much these days."

The National Observer can contribute much to this discussion, but articles on such topics requiring expertise and experience in engineering and economics should be written by experts, not columnists.

Thanks Andy. Briefly, utility scale solar and rooftop/building integrated systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. Technolgy and economics will dictate what goes forward and where, with policy guiding the trajectory and pace of the transition. With respect to your characterising my comments as overly local in focus, the economics of distributed energy systems only succeed as a result of globally integrated supply chains and international R&D networks. The success of rooftop solar is a testament to global excellence in (a) advanced materials research and (b) high-tech manufacturing. Both of these elements rely on economies of scale to succeed. If you or an expert colleague would like to share a public opinion on the matter, I am sure the editors would be interested. Regards, HS

@andy, I would agree with you that there should be a discussion on what type of renewable energy projects make sense and where from a cost perspective. But an energy positive building standard and feed-in-tariff policy for new homes would help to kickstart the necessary action. Canada needs to be more ambitious with its energy policy - we would all benefit from more robust industrial innovation policy and increased energy efficiency across the economy. Whether energy development is undertaken by homeowners, communities, commercial property developers, and/or large institutional investors, you can be certain that individual project economics will be scrutinised before investment. As Canada is decades behind Europe and a number of US jurisdictions in solar policy and investment, we can learn from others' experience. As you and many, many other commentators rightfully point out, rooftop solar in places with relatively cheap energy (most of grid-connected Canada) requires long-term policy incentives and clear regulations. Existing business models for US rooftop solar companies look poor. But already in Europe there are technology companies, both start-ups and players like IBM who will be providing software solutions to improve efficiency and enable aggregation of rooftop power systems (including the battery) for load balancing services and sale back onto the grid. My main point is that without clear and ambitious standards and accompanying regulatory frameworks the Canadian renewable energy industry will not flourish. Rooftop solar is just one example from that sector. I would love to read your analysis on what enabling frameworks are required for utility-scale projects to work in the right places. There is more than enough liquidity with quantitative easing to start the renewable energy build-out, so your identifying blockages to action would be great.

@andy, I would agree with you that there should be a discussion on what type of renewable energy projects make sense and where from a cost perspective. But an energy positive building standard and feed-in-tariff policy for new homes would help to kickstart the necessary action. Canada needs to be more ambitious with its energy policy - we would all benefit from more robust industrial innovation policy and increased energy efficiency across the economy. Whether energy development is undertaken by homeowners, communities, commercial property developers, and/or large institutional investors, you can be certain that individual project economics will be scrutinised before investment. As Canada is decades behind Europe and a number of US jurisdictions in solar policy and investment, we can learn from others' experience. As you and many, many other commentators rightfully point out, rooftop solar in places with relatively cheap energy (most of grid-connected Canada) requires long-term policy incentives and clear regulations. Existing business models for US rooftop solar companies look poor. But already in Europe there are technology companies, both start-ups and players like IBM who will be providing software solutions to improve efficiency and enable aggregation of rooftop power systems (including the battery) for load balancing services and sale back onto the grid. My main point is that without clear and ambitious standards and accompanying regulatory frameworks the Canadian renewable energy industry will not flourish. Rooftop solar is just one example from that sector. I would love to read your analysis on what enabling frameworks are required for utility-scale projects to work in the right places. There is more than enough liquidity with quantitative easing to start the renewable energy build-out, so your identifying blockages to action would be great.

A national energy strategy should do a lot of things it is not doing.