Supporting Energy Affordability and Choice

Home, sweet, energy-efficient home. For the residential construction industry in Canada, the focus on energy efficiency grows sharper each year as consumers and governments grapple with reducing our impact on the environment – and our pocketbooks. Innovation in building materials, including windows and doors, appliances and the all-important furnace, have contributed to reducing energy requirements, with natural gas taking a lead in providing an efficient, cost-effective fuel source.

Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of all residential energy use in Canada is, unsurprisingly, spent on heating the home. With the residential sector accounting for 17 per cent of Canada’s total domestic energy use, that’s a chunk of heating that goes on across the country. And even though it takes a third of the energy to run a home today – from furnace to water heater to fridge to dryer – than it did in 1990, the residential construction industry continues to search for ways to make residences more energy efficient – and affordable.

“Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of all residential energy use in Canada is, unsurprisingly, spent on heating the home.”

“Some of the fundamental priorities for our association are supporting affordability and choice,” said Kevin Lee, chief executive officer of the Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA). “That’s always been the case, and when it comes to energy sources, of course, natural gas is a wonderfully inexpensive and efficient way of heating homes and is the kind of thing that Canadians should have as a choice.”

The association represents more than 8,500 companies encompassing builders, renovators, developers, trade contractors, manufacturers, building product suppliers, lenders, and insurance and service professionals. Over the past 30 years, it has seen the residential construction sector reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 per cent, while at the same time the number of new houses grew by 38 per cent.

Part of the reduction was due to innovations in natural gas-burning appliances and furnaces that increased their efficiency. “A lot of what we do revolves around continuing to use natural gas,” Lee said. “In fact, we’ve been proponents in recent years of making sure the government supports more research in terms of natural gas systems, particularly as houses become more energy efficient, and there are many more small units that have small heat loads, like condos.”

Lee noted consumers across Canada have come to expect natural gas, where it is available. “It’s not like our members need to convince consumers that they should go with natural gas over some other heating source. It is, for very good reasons, the de facto heating fuel of choice and source.”

Once thought to be a rapidly diminishing resource, natural gas reserves across North America have grown through the use of technologies. New pools of accessible natural gas opened new markets and possibilities, while becoming increasingly attractive as a cleaner burning and less expensive heat and power source.

As a developer and builder in the Greater Toronto Area for more than 30 years, Bob Finnigan has seen home construction become more complex, with natural gas contributing to the positive evolution. “In the 60s and 70s, the typical house was carpet on the floor, arborite countertops, not a lot of hardwoods or materials sensitive to humidity. In today’s homes, we have a lot more hardwood and cabinetry subject to humidity concerns. Now, getting the furnace in early and using gas heat, we can control the environment sooner and better.”

Finnigan recalls that in years past, one of the biggest problems in construction was having to haul huge propane bottles all over to have heat in the basements so foundations didn’t freeze. Then it became possible to get natural gas in and do direct gas hookups for open flame heaters that were safer and provided heat during construction until a furnace could be installed.

“From a builder perspective, gas is extremely efficient for us to put in,” he says. There’s no question from the consumer side and we tout the fact that our furnaces are the most efficient and the best.” They also are installing more gas barbecues, and driers because they are more cost-efficient than electrical driers.

“A lot of what we do revolves around continuing to use natural gas.”

But a dearth of new and available homes, high property taxes as well as looming changes to national building codes are weighing heavily on the industry. Affordable entry-level housing has become one of the biggest challenges for the residential home sector and for potential homeowners, particularly as the federal government moves toward net zero ready energy performance in national building codes within the next 12 years, Lee said.

Having worked in the industry and in the public sector for three decades, Lee argued more funding toward research and development should be put in place before trying to enforce a code that could tack on an extra $60,000 to the price of a home. “There’s an awful lot of policy from all three levels of government that are making it a challenge for first-time homebuyers to get into the market,” Lee said, noting the proposed 2030 deadline for the net zero building code.

Although new homes are 37 per cent more energy efficient than in 1990, they account for less than two per cent of the total housing stock each year. The CHBA believes providing tax incentives for energy efficiency retrofits could prove more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by keeping the innovations within the reach of more potential homeowners. The association estimates every dollar invested in energy retrofits on an existing home will yield four to seven times more greenhouse gas reductions than the same dollar investment in a new house.

“Natural gas companies are working with builders to find ways to use less natural gas through designing energy efficient homes and more energy efficient appliances.”

Eric DenOuden is the immediate past president of the CHBA and a residential home builder in Quinte, Ontario. His company builds between 30-60 entry-level homes a year and DenOuden said consumers are more concerned now with property taxes than utilities because operating costs are so low due to energy efficient buildings and appliances.

He credited natural gas companies for working with builders to find ways to use less natural gas through designing energy efficient homes and more energy efficient appliances. But DenOuden is acutely aware of the trend toward renewable energy sources and away from fossil fuels,

‘Whether it’s five, 10 or 15 years from now, it’s going to happen,” he said. “Right now, natural gas is hands down the fuel of choice. It’s good, clean, efficient and everybody wants it in their home. But, we know as an industry we are no different than the automobile industry. We are under societal pressures and to appease the masses, governments don’t think about cost ramifications. As entrepreneurs and business people we do think of that, so we are trying to figure out ways to incorporate these changes in a cost-effective way, so people still have the option to have a roof over their heads.”

Dina O’Meara has been covering Canadian energy issues for almost 20 years.