Wanted: Higher energy standards for housing

A real concern for many is the cost of heating our homes. It’s a cold country so we should logically adapt our housing to reflect the reality that housing uses 17% of Canada’s total energy budget. To some extent we have started down that road with the R2000 program but there is a major gap between R2000 housing and what is really possible.

Decades of cheap energy have sapped our creative thinking, and left us with a legacy of energy pigs masquerading as houses. That is changing. If the price of oil hadn’t declined this fall and winter, we would have had a major crisis on our hands. It’s only a temporary reprieve, but are we ready to react to the long-term trend that is evident? Whether you heat with electricity, oil, natural gas or wood, prices are going to rise quicker than your wages or inflation. For many, that means a choice of cutting other expenditures and it could be food. What are we to do?

There are some reasons for optimism. First, the advent of new housing concepts like the “net-zero” energy home, which integrates advanced energy efficiency design and building materials with onsite renewable energy, which is then capable of producing an annual output of energy that is equal to the total amount of its annual purchased energy. Going closer to zero energy costs more because photovoltaic, is still a little pricey today. This leads us to the near zero energy home which may be reasonable right now.

Rob Dumont from Saskatchewan was in New Brunswick recently giving presentations on a remarkable “Factor 9” house built in 2007 in Regina. It was designed to use nine times less energy than a house built in the 1970’s and use only 50% of the water. It consumes only 3 kWh per square foot per year or $450 for the energy (1500 ft2 home). On the south wall are active solar panels that heat water for space and hot water heating. In addition, the air infiltration is reduced from 1.5 (R2000) to .5 air changes per hour. An air exchanger ventilates and recovers heat. The R-2000 home, the top energy standard for New Brunswick, would use 13 kWh for each square foot or more than four times the energy. Is it worth it?

The idea of investing a little more money initially to save on energy bills in the future isn’t as exciting to some as granite countertops. But looking into the figures – the older standard 1500 ft2 home uses 28,000 kWh per year, the R2000 uses 19,500 and the Factor nine uses 4500 kWh, which is $2800, $1950, and $450 respectively. (at 10 cents /kWh) Of course, the cost of energy will rise over the years so let’s use an average figure of 14 cents when calculating the present value of the energy savings over the years.

The energy savings by insulating above the standard home of the past to R2000 is $12,600 over 20 years. The benefits of going Factor 9 would be almost $35,000. Supposing the standard house cost $200,000. The R2000 would cost $206,000 based on a 3% premium. The Factor 9 could cost $220,000 to build. The savings in each case are greater than the initial cost increases.

So, the numbers suggest that super insulation and smart building techniques save money, and we know that the local economy benefits from energy dollars remaining in the community. Environmentally, using less energy reduces greenhouse gases. Energy security for Canadians is enhanced by using less fuel and generally contributes to less price volatility. We know all of these good things yet we continue to build with poor energy performance. How could we change?

First, we have to understand why change is necessary. Most people know little about Factor 9 or close to net zero energy homes. Paul Arsenault of AlternaHome Solutions was recently selected as the builder of the first CMHC Equilibrium eco-friendly demonstration home in Atlantic Canada. Moncton is the site.

We need model homes in every major region in the province. Efficiency NB could incorporate a model home subsidy for a number of legitimate builders to aid in the design, construction and monitoring of their first super-efficient home. Let’s build home grown expertise and visibility.

Secondly, the province must adopt a high energy standard for all new construction, even higher than the R-2000 program. Poor energy performance means a cold and bleak future. A bright self-sufficient future for New Brunswick includes conservation, passive solar gain, and eventually photovoltaic for new construction.

Finally, we need to examine the way that our communities are built, to minimize the necessity for private cars. Just reducing the energy demand of housing is only part of the total energy solution.

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