As Canada tackles building emissions, what's a natural gas utility to do?

As Canada tackles building emissions, what's a natural gas utility to do?

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As Canada tackles building emissions, what's a natural gas utility to do?

Starting this year, the City of Vancouver is requiring all new low-rise residential buildings to use zero-emissions sources of energy. For many buildings, that means turning to electricity for heating, cooling and hot water, rather than furnaces that run by burning natural gas.

The technology to make all this possible is a heat pump, a device that sucks in heat from the outside air (even cold winter air) and brings it inside a building. In the summer, a heat pump can do the reverse to cool the building, replacing air conditioners. Heat pumps are powered by electricity, and in B.C, 98 per cent of the electricity grid is made up of non-carbon-emitting sources like hydropower.

But FortisBC, the main natural gas utility in the province, wants to be a part of the future energy mix. It plans to increase its supply of renewable natural gas (RNG), which is collected from decomposing organic waste in landfills and other facilities. When that waste decomposes, it releases biogas, which is mostly methane.

FortisBC argues that rather than a single-minded drive towards full electrification of heating systems, which will require a massive expansion of clean energy generation in Canada, an approach that includes natural gas is important in meeting our net zero emissions goals.

"The transition to net zero and to achieving our … longer-term climate targets in 2050, it's going to require a lot more electricity. It's going to require a lot more renewable gas," said Doug Slater, vice-president of Indigenous and external relations at FortisBC.

"In order to find enough renewable energy and low carbon energy, we're going to have to use all of the different supplies that we have in the most efficient way possible."

Burning RNG is considered carbon neutral because it ultimately comes from plants that once absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it's captured from waste that would otherwise release methane into the atmosphere while decomposing.

FortisBC's goal is that RNG will make up 15 per cent of its gas supply by 2030 — something Slater said the utility is on track to achieving — and 75 per cent by 2050.

In an interview with CBC Radio last week, however, a FortisBC spokesperson said that RNG currently makes up only about one per cent of its system's supply.

Meanwhile, BC Hydro, the province's main electric utility, is preparing to replace natural gas in homes. It is planning to increase its electricity supply and is encouraging people to switch to technologies like heat pumps.

BC Hydro's plans appear to have little space for FortisBC's ambitions to supply RNG to British Columbians into the future, a conflict that spilled over onto Twitter last year.

FortisBC responded to a BC Hydro tweet by claiming a furnace running on RNG could be carbon neutral and cheaper than an electric heat pump. BC Hydro tweeted back questioning FortisBC's goal of 15 per cent RNG by 2030 and highlighting the incentives BC Hydro was offering homeowners.

In 2021, BC Hydro submitted its Integrated Resource Plan to the BC Utilities Commission outlining its approach to meet electricity demand for the next 20 years. BC Hydro relied on modelling analysis that shows that under a scenario where B.C. adopts stronger policies to meet its emissions reductions goals, heat pumps would be the dominant source of heating in buildings by 2050, and BC Hydro plans to supply enough electricity to meet this demand.

In this scenario, combustion would provide only 16 per cent of residential heating, half of it from wood.

As Canada tackles building emissions, what's a natural gas utility to do?

When it comes to making a choice today, BC Hydro says the path is clear for people who want to cut their emissions.

"Our hydroelectricity is clean. It comes from renewable resources. We're a leader in western North America when it comes to clean electricity generation," said Simi Heer, a spokesperson for BC Hydro.

The utility says its goal is to help people move away from burning fossil fuels for space and water heating, and announced incentives worth $26 million to encourage people to switch to devices like heat pumps that run on electricity.

It remains to be seen how the two utilities will reconcile their climate plans as B.C. and Canada head into a net-zero future.

— Inayat Singh

Reader feedback

We got a number of responses to Emily Chung's piece last week on a co-op geothermal heating initiative in Montreal. Here's one from Ellen McDonnell in Christina Lake, B.C.

"My husband and I have been using geothermal heat as our primary heat source since 2012. We have a wood-burning fireplace, electric baseboards and two propane fireplaces for backup. We rarely need the electric baseboards, which saves us a lot.

"The first winter we only had horizontal lines and they ran out of heat about mid-December. The next summer we installed three 250-foot [61-metre] wells for one continuous line. It works great — only when we have long periods of –15 C does it struggle. The backup heat gives the geo a bit of a rest during these times. Here at Christina Lake, we get maybe one- or two-week periods of –15 weather. The geo was also fantastic in the summer when we hit 40 C last year. It cools us all summer.

"We had to learn all about geothermal on our own. We got no help from anyone, except a friend in Germany, where there is much more information available. We think our system, with the appliance to convert the heat into forced air, cost about $40,000, which should be recouped in about 15 years. It would have been nice to get some help with taxes or something.

"This source of heating is the future as far as we are concerned. So glad to hear that co-op in Montreal has got started with it."

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The Big Picture: Gas expansion through sensitive habitat

After Emily Chung wrote about Ontario's plan to expand its natural gas network, Alex Juhasz, a reader in Penticton, B.C., wrote in to say that Ontario is not the only province where gas networks may be growing. As the previous article indicated, FortisBC aims to keep natural gas a big part of B.C.'s future energy mix. It's trying to get approval for a network expansion, the Okanagan Capacity Upgrade, for construction starting in 2022 or 2023. The utility said the "extension of existing systems will keep pace with regional growth now and into the future."

Juhasz is concerned about how this will affect natural habitat. To make his point, he sent a number of photos from his property in Penticton, which features, among other creatures, the bighorn sheep seen below.

"This is a crazy project to consider when there are alternatives to heat homes, water and cook food; e.g. electricity, especially with Site C [hydroelectric project] coming on board in the near future, as well as solar, geothermal," Juhasz wrote. "My wife and I as well as a contiguous neighbour prevented the pipeline from going through our properties here in rural Penticton, saving a large swath of ecologically sensitive habitat." However, he said, if approved, a new proposed route will go through a vernal pond that is the breeding habitat of the spadefoot toad – "not good."

The Penticton Indian Band has also raised questions about the impact of more gas infrastructure on vulnerable species. Fortis says mitigation measures will be developed during the detailed engineering phase of the project.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Fort Frances was the 1st Ontario town to ban single-use plastics. So how has it gone?

As the federal government prepares to implement a single-use plastics ban before the end of 2022, one town in northwestern Ontario has already had a year's worth of practice.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Fort Frances became the first municipality in the province to ban single-use plastics, and some businesses and customers say the transition to recyclable and compostable alternatives has been relatively smooth.

Even so, the town has opted to delay enforcing the bylaw until June 30 of this year because of supply chain concerns raised by some restaurant owners.

The bylaw prohibits the distribution of Styrofoam takeout containers, plastic swizzle sticks, stir sticks and straws, as well as plastic grocery bags. It contains a number of exceptions, such as allowing plastic straws to be handed out upon request.

"It's been accepted very well," said Craig Sanders, who owns The Place, an independent grocery store. "I mean, for the first couple of days, there were a couple of people complaining, but it doesn't take people long to get used to the idea that there's been a change, and this is how things have to be."

Sanders spent much of the year preparing to transition from plastic grocery bags and found a supplier that offers a compostable alternative.

"Plastic bags were costing us just over two cents," he said. "The new ones are costing us 12 to 15 cents, depending on whether it's paper or plastic. So we've implemented a charge. And we're seeing people bring their own bags a lot more often."

Sarah Noonan, one of the restaurant owners who signed the letter to the city asking it to delay the penalty phase of the ban, said she's not opposed to helping the environment.

Noonan, who owns La Place Rendez-Vous, a hotel and restaurant, said she's been replacing single-use shampoo bottles in her hotel rooms with refillable dispensers. She doesn't use Styrofoam packaging for her takeout food and stopped giving out straws long before the bylaw was passed. She's also been using paper rather than plastic bags for more than a year.

But recent delivery problems have prevented her from being consistent about that, she said.

"We couldn't get paper bags for a little while," she said. "This supply chain stuff is insane."

Noonan's restaurant went straw-free after she took an environmental pledge at a Toronto food show several years ago, although she started offering them again upon request.

"We got barely any complaints," she said. "But we saved tens of thousands of straws a year, so it was an easy fix.… You're doing something good for the environment and you don't have to buy that supply anymore."

The part of the bylaw that restricts straws is controversial with advocates for people with disabilities.

Nicole Pentney wrote a letter to town council in November 2019 raising concerns that a straw ban would discriminate against people with disabilities who rely on them to help consume beverages.

Council opted to allow restaurants to give out straws upon request, but Pentney, a longtime social services worker, said she still had concerns.

"Unfortunately, the ban on [plastic] straws has made them unavailable in most restaurants," she wrote in a message to CBC News. "While some restaurants may have them available upon request, the ban has effectively made them no longer available in all locations to those with a need for them."

Nicole LaPine, a stroke survivor, said that when the bylaw came out, "I was hurt that people assumed that people who used single-use straws were hurting the planet."

Coun. Douglas Judson, a proponent of the bylaw, said the straws-on-demand rule was designed to strike a balance between environmental goals and the needs of people with disabilities. Pentney said she would like to see the straw ban scrapped.

Another concern about the bylaw revolves around wording.

"I actually don't fully understand what the ban is yet, to be honest," said Noonan.

She emailed CBC News a copy of a Town of Fort Frances poster that stated, "No business shall sell or provide single-use food packaging to a customer for the purpose of transporting, containing or facilitating the consumption of prepared food or beverages received by the customer from the business."

The bylaw, however, states that only foam packaging is prohibited. Judson confirmed the ban only applies to Styrofoam packaging and not to other takeout containers.

"If there is confusion around that, we do have work to do in our communications," he said.

Overall, Judson said, he is proud of the town's response to the plastics ban.

"Back in late 2019, when I started shopping the idea around, I went to the chamber of commerce, I went to the local business improvement association, and I didn't really get any negative pushback," he said.

"I think it's a really good example … of how local government and municipalities can show leadership on bigger problems."

– Heather Kitching

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty