Meet The Unsexy Climate Solution That Cuts Energy Bills, Creates Jobs and Saves Rivers

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has long been criticized for lowballing the potential for renewable power and overestimating future demand for oil and gas.

Such forecasts matter. After all, the Paris-based organization is made up of 29 OECD countries — including Canada and the United States — and regularly produces publications that help member countries plan and coordinate energy policies.

That’s why it was particularly shocking when the IEA concluded in its latest Energy Technology Perspectives report that almost 75 per cent of the emissions reductions needed for its “2°C Scenario” will come from energy efficiency and renewables.

The real superstar of the report was energy efficiency, which the authors estimated would account for 34 per cent of reductions, resulting in global net-zero emissions by 2060.

“It’s not the sexiest thing,” Pembina Institute analyst Julia-Maria Becker said in an interview. “People aren’t aware of its benefits.”

Triple-paned windows and improved insulations isn’t quite as riveting as, say, a wind farm or geothermal plant.

But according to the IEA, it could be the sector that saves the world from the worst effects of climate change.

Here are five things you need to know about energy efficiency.

1) Energy Efficiency Is Many Things

The key thing to understand about energy efficiency is it’s no one thing.

“Most of the energy efficiency measures are not rocket science. A whole bunch of little stuff is what energy efficiency is,” said Jesse Row, executive director of the Alberta Energy Efficiency Alliance.

The classic example is the LED light bulb, replacing its far less efficient incandescent cousin.

“Building automation” — a means of controlling an entire building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) via one system — is another type of energy efficiency measure. Or consider the programmable thermostats, hot water pipe wraps and smart power strips.

2) It’s About More Than Changing Light Bulbs

The kind of “deep” energy efficiency that the IEA is getting at won’t be attained via just switching out light bulbs (although that of course helps).

Rather than simply replacing a single appliance or system, the deep energy approach attempts to integrate a more holistic approach, recognizing that all systems work in tandem and require a complete overhaul to maximize opportunities.

“We can put ourselves in a little trap if we focus too much on picking the low-hanging fruit and end up investing in sub-optimal solutions or making it more challenging to package together a deep energy retrofit for a home or building,” said Bryan Purcell, director of policy and programs at The Atmospheric Fund.

The famous ‘London Gherkin’ has a bulbous design that minimizes surface area. The building uses about half the energy a similar tower conventionally construction would. Photo: Jopa Elleul via Flickr

3) In Canada, It’s About Heating

The measures that will really get Canada to where it needs to be concerns the building envelope, a jargony way of talking about insulating walls, basements and attics, installing thicker windows and making fundamental changes to heating.

That’s because home heating accounted for 63 per cent of residential energy use as of 2013.

“The dominant source of energy use in buildings in Canada is heating,” Purcell says. “Hands down: it’s much larger than anything else. Addressing it is really critical to reaching these kind of deep reductions.”

Purcell says getting to the long-term improvements in energy efficiency will likely require converting homes and buildings from gas-fired furnaces to air-source or ground-source (also known as geoexchange) heat pump for primary heating. When paired with passive solar designs — in which buildings are designed to maximize exposure to the sun and minimize heat loss — such measures can dramatically reduce heating consumption.

Row says that energy efficiency retrofits are always more challenging than starting from scratch.

That’s why he says one of the really exciting things with “new builds” is the opportunity to get to net-zero energy buildings, in which homes and businesses are producing as much (and) more energy that they need via small-scale solar. Eventually, that can lead to net-zero energy communities.

A passive house or passivhaus designed to maximize energy efficiency in Golden, Colorado. Photo: National Renewable Energy Labs via Flickr

4) Carbon Price Revenues Can Help Pay for Big Changes

But here’s the thing. Such investments cost quite a bit of money.

Purcell says Ontario has seen some ambitious commitments as part of their climate change action plan to recycle the cap-and-trade revenues into energy efficiency programs, including incentives and rebates.

Similarly, Alberta will be investing more than $500 million in the next three years into its newly established energy efficiency agency, something which Low says will get the province “from zero to the middle of the pack.”

Just last week, the federal government announced further details on its $2 billion Low Carbon Economy Fund, which will be distributed to provinces for projects including energy efficiency.

But experts agree that governments will have to dole out far more.

“Total spending on energy efficiency is still really an order of magnitude below where we need to drive it,” Purcell says.

Low agrees. “When you look at in the context of the IEA report, middle of the pack isn’t good enough for any of us. We all have to step up our game over the long-term.”

The gradual introduction of carbon pricing will help drive the business case for deeper energy efficiency cases.

5) Regulations Can Drive Change

Then there’s the regulations piece. That includes developing standards for appliances and equipment, new building codes for net-zero buildings and mandatory energy benchmarking, disclosures and audits.

The benefits of such policies go beyond massive emissions reductions.

For one, it cuts down on utility bills. Purcell says it also drives increased employment, both directly in home and building retrofits and indirectly via the usage of money that would otherwise be spent on utility bills. There’s also a lot of potential for health and wellness improvements.

“We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors in Canada so the indoor environment is really critical to our fiscal and mental health,” Purcell says. “A lot of what we can do with energy efficiency in green buildings is driving directly towards improving the air quality, lighting quality and thermal comfort in homes and buildings.”

It will also mean that Canada can preemptively reduce electricity demand and avoid significant investments in infrastructure that may not be required.

The opposite of this has been happening in B.C. where energy efficiency programs have quietly been waylaid to manufacture energy demand for the $9 billion Site C dam.

“These are technologies that are already out there and we just need to make sure we actually take advantage of them,” Becker concludes.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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