A recent piece in Policy Options highlights energy poverty in Canada and calls for urgent action to relieve low-income households of the burden of overpaying for such basics as heat, light and communication. Energy-saving and emission-cutting retrofits aimed at reducing energy poverty would also provide households with the benefits of health and comfort, which are becoming increasingly important. This is particularly true in light of more frequent and more severe weather events driven by climate change.

There is a need for national mobilization to retrofit our existing buildings, especially low-efficiency buildings occupied by low-income households. This cannot be overstated. However, our policies and regulations for new buildings must also be revised to ensure that what we build today does not add to the problem of energy poverty.

Efficiency is the first fuel. It has long been recognized that the most effective approach to decarbonizing the building sector is to first minimize the energy demand of buildings. Otherwise, achieving net-zero energy (and/or emission) performance would entail either unrealistically large onsite renewable energy systems or wasteful use of abundant low-carbon energy sources (for example hydroelectricity) which could be put to better use, including in other sectors such as transportation. High-efficiency buildings provide healthier, more comfortable living spaces, regardless of the fuel type. Unfortunately, recent developments in national and provincial building regulations indicate a disregard for this reality.

Two examples illustrate that point.

In December 2019, British Columbia amended its pioneering building energy standard, the BC Energy Step Code, to introduce an alternative compliance pathway for small residential buildings. As shown in a recent report, this alternative and the corresponding performance targets lack rigour. They fall way short of the province’s commitment to mandating “net-zero energy ready” buildings by 2032 and also impede individual municipalities’ efforts to promote better buildings in general and energy-efficient, low-carbon buildings in particular. Despite pleas from various stakeholders, the province has yet to reverse that misstep.

Shortly after in May 2020, the standing committee on energy efficiency of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fires Codes was instructed to exclude mandatory airtightness testing from the upcoming edition of the National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings. The proposed national code already relied on the same ineffective approach introduced by B.C. in late 2019. The final version of the code is to be released later this year, but there is no indication that any of those shortcomings will be addressed. In addition to undermining the efforts to decarbonize the building sector, the low-efficiency buildings that are falling through the cracks of these regulations deprive residents of the wide-ranging benefits of high-performance buildings, including energy security.

Energy poverty caused by new inefficient buildings can be exacerbated by the increasing push for electrification, including generous governmental rebates and incentives, especially if done prematurely, before the potential for increasing energy efficiency has been exhausted. The adverse financial effects of abandoning the cause of energy efficiency, sometimes meant to be done in favor of rapid decarbonization, tend to be obscured by oversimplification. A simple cost-of-energy (dollars-per-gigawatt) comparison is often used to demonstrate the “affordability” and “cost-effectiveness” of high-efficiency electric equipment such as heat pumps, even for low-efficiency houses. What that assumption leaves out are thermal comfort and occupant behavior. These factors will especially influence the energy performance of low-efficiency houses.

Thermal comfort is determined by not only the air temperature, but also by the temperature of surfaces (walls, windows, floors, ceilings) and the air speed (draft), among other factors. So, if you live in a leaky house with poorly insulated walls and windows, you tend to feel uncomfortable even when the air inside the house is warm. You will crank up the thermostat for heat to make up for the radiant heat you’re losing to the cold surfaces surrounding you. This means your space-heating equipment will run longer hours and your energy cost will be higher.

On the other hand, the cost of heating, cooling and ventilating an airtight, well-insulated house with a compact form — in short, an efficient building — will be low, regardless of the equipment and energy source, partly because the principles of thermal comfort are observed in the building’s design. Our current and planned building codes continue to allow poorly performing buildings. The decision to exclude airtightness testing from the national requirements means leaky houses will continue to be deemed “compliant” with the code.

Our low-carbon energy sources are also not to be taken for granted. Even in British Columbia, where electricity is deemed “extremely low-carbon,” the clean power supply could be rather fragile as it depends on the amount of electricity imported from fossil-fuel plants in Alberta.

Hasty electrification of low-efficiency buildings can significantly increase the greenhouse gas intensity of the grid at times when it matters the most, like on a cold winter night, rendering those buildings not very low carbon in operation. Moreover, the increasing carbon tax could mean higher electricity prices at those peak, high-carbon times and a larger burden on residents, especially energy-poor households.

Sidestepping energy efficiency in new construction will soon come back to hurt us. It will result in a waste of our limited clean-power generation and distribution capacity while exposing residents to the risk of energy poverty. That is why the energy-poverty narrative must expand its scope beyond existing buildings. It must simultaneously push for rapidly mandating the highest levels of efficiency for new buildings to ensure the houses we build today will not expose their future occupants to energy poverty.

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Sepehr Foroushani, Ph.D., P.Eng., is a mechanical engineer whose policy interests include energy efficiency, sustainability and resilience in the building sector.

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