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Why Move to Electric Heat & Hot Water?

Screenshot of heat pumps on apartment building, Hangzhou, China, where all buildings have heat pumps. Lori Goldman

October 16, 2023 Dear Mayor and Councillors,

On behalf of and our 98,000 community members across BC, including hundreds in Penticton, I’m writing in support of a strong Zero Carbon Step Code policy. To strengthen current staff recommendations, I encourage council to direct staff that six months after adopting EL-1 ‘measure only’, Penticton moves to EL-4 ‘zero carbon performance’ standard of the Zero Carbon Step Code for new construction.

We applaud staff’s recommendation of providing incentives to adopt the Zero Carbon Step Code, including a Building Permit fee refund as is currently in place for the Energy Step Code. This is a good first step, but Penticton can be a true climate leader by going further and becoming the first to adopt the EL-4 Zero Carbon Performance standard in the Okanagan Valley joining the growing list of local governments that already have, like Nanaimo, Victoria, and Saanich. Below we aim to provide another perspective on the claims made by FortisBC and share additional information on the role of all-electric new construction as you consider how to move forward with climate action plans.

  1. Decarbonizing buildings is one of the most effective and affordable climate actions local governments can take and, according to FortisBC’s own research, electric heat pumps are the best way to decarbonize buildings. In BC, buildings currently account for 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions and in cities, that number soars to 40% or higher. Reducing emissions from buildings is one of the easiest steps that municipalities can take to meet climate action goals. In March 2022, a report was published by FortisBC, the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, and the BC Bioenergy Network that explored the future supply of renewable and low carbon gas. When initially published, the report included findings that heat pumps are “six to eight times more efficient than heating with gas” and concluded that “in the moderate climate of southern and coastal B.C, electric heat pumps can achieve GHG reductions more effectively than renewable and low-carbon gases.”

  2. Building to Zero Carbon standards is affordable and effective in all climates. According to provincial data tables it costs less than 1% more to build a Zero Carbon home in most climate zones across the province, and if highly efficient heat pumps are installed (instead of much less efficient baseboard heaters), the ongoing heating and hot water costs are measurably lower than with gas systems. Heat pumps have a long and proven track record – there are nearly 200 million units in operation around the world, and they’re already found in the majority of homes in countries like Norway and Sweden. A new Oxford University study released in September 2023 has found that heat pumps are much more efficient in cold climates than oil or gas systems.

  3. Homes built with gas connections will face retrofit challenges in the near future and requiring electrified construction now could give local businesses a competitive advantage when it becomes the standard province-wide. The longer we take to build new homes that meet Zero Carbon benchmarks, the more homeowners and commercial building owners we are burdening with costly, challenging and inconvenient retrofits down the road when these standards become mandatory in 2030. Municipalities across BC that have already passed accelerated Zero Carbon standards are betting that moving quickly will give local businesses and trades a leg up by developing local expertise, skill and supply chains ahead of provincially-mandated higher standards. Earlier this week, over 30 building industry leaders published a letter in support of the Zero Carbon Step Code.

  4. Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) is not a viable solution to decarbonizing our buildings. While RNG has a place in a renewable energy future, most energy experts agree that due to high cost and limited supply, it should be reserved for its highest and best use in hard-to-decarbonize sectors (e.g. cement production). RNG is created when methane gas is captured from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and agricultural waste, and as such is available in extremely limited quantities. The same 2022 study into renewable and low-carbon gas supply acknowledges that out of a projected 440 petajoules of future “renewable and low carbon gas” production, the vast majority would come from wood fiber and fossil fuel-derived hydrogen, sources that may actually produce more carbon pollution than conventional gas, and the rest of the shortfall would be made up buy purchasing credits for RNG that is produced and used elsewhere (e.g. Ontario or the US). At most 2.2% of this future supply would come from locally-produced waste gas from landfills, agriculture and wastewater treatment plants. This briefing note contains more detailed information on RNG.

  5. BC’s electrical grid is ready to handle increased demand. BC Hydro currently has a surplus of power and expects to have more than enough until 2030 and its 20-year Integrated Resource Plan is forecasting and preparing for scenarios with significantly increased electricity demand due to accelerated electrification of buildings and vehicles. Several recent studies, including The Big Switch report and the David Suzuki Foundation’s Zero Emissions modelling study, support the conclusion that by increasing solar and wind capacity, building a smarter and more efficient grid, making use of existing hydro electricity capacity, and focusing on improved efficiency across all sectors, we can meet future needs without new large-scale hydro projects.

  6. All-electric buildings also provide significant health and safety benefits. Heat pumps automatically provide cooling, keeping homes more comfortable and safe during extreme heat events, and they provide air filtration to protect against wildfire smoke and other outdoor air pollutants. As we move through another heartbreaking terrible wildfire season – now officially BC’s worst season on record by a wide margin – requiring new buildings to provide cooling via electric heat pumps is one of the most straightforward and effective things we can do to avoid another deadly event like the 2021 heat dome. Switching out gas stoves for electric appliances also significantly improves indoor air quality. See Building to Electrification coalition resources for more information.

Building codes have long been designed to set minimum standards that protect our health and safety. Few would argue that builders should have the choice to insulate with asbestos, decorate with lead paint or build a high-rise apartment building without a fire escape. Similarly, why should they be able to install a polluting gas-powered furnace or boiler over a highly-efficient electric heat pump when cleaner and safer technology is readily available and affordable?

As we all move to tackle the climate crisis and navigate a new reality full of extreme and unpredictable weather events, we will have many difficult decisions ahead of us. However, building Zero Carbon new buildings isn’t one of those hard decisions – in fact, it’s very straightforward. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to talk more about climate action in your communities.

Yours truly, Liz McDowell Senior Campaigns Director

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