Moving to a Zero-Carbon Future in Ontario Through the Electrification of Everything / by Sustainable

By Nicholas Discenza

July 15, 2019

George Monbiot’s book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, published in 2006, accepts mankind’s role as the main contributor to climate change. He discusses the need for immediate and drastic cuts to carbon emissions of at least 80% by 2030 in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

On that premise, Monbiot seeks to answer the question “when you get to 80 per cent cut, what will this country look like?” He concludes that "it is possible to save the biosphere", but we must be prepared to accept that setting a limit on our freedom to pollute means all our lives will change. What we need now is "bold politics and ambitious engineering".

We may not have bold politicians, but we do have ambitious architects, engineers—and forward-thinking clients who want to be on the leading edge of this sea change.

Sustainable. Architecture for a Healthy Planet has seen the future, and it is all-electric—at least in Ontario, where our electrical grid is one of the most carbon-clean in the world. Thus, although our current energy grid may not be fully carbon-emission free, electrification is the best approach that would allow for a zero-carbon future.

When seeking to build a home for themselves and their family, Sustainable’s clients Charles and Erika were committed to the idea of building “the best home, not the biggest home.” Such a fundamental change in attitude needs to prevail if we are to solve the climate crisis. By choosing to build a house that was right-sized for their needs, their home was built within the constraints of the City’s zoning by-laws they avoided the need to request minor variances from the Committee of Adjustment, and were able to fast-track the municipal approvals process by 6 months.

This right-sizing saved them both time and money. By choosing to invest their savings into ambitious construction assemblies such as high levels of continuous exterior insulation and optimized air-tightness they were able to further reduce their energy demands for heating and cooling. These strategies realize the first of the three R’s of sustainability: Reduce the overall energy demand.

Operable windows allow for natural cross-ventilation, and planting deciduous shade trees means their home won’t overheat in the summer, but will absorb the sun’s warming rays during the winter. These strategies demonstrate the second R of sustainability: Reuse nature’s energy passively.

An air-tight and well-insulated home will require much less energy to heat and cool, which allowed Charles and Erika to consider the possibility of going all-electric. Instead of a conventional gas-fired furnace which burns fossil fuels to create heat, they selected an electric air-source heat pump which also handles their cooling needs. Instead of a gas-fired boiler, a high-efficiency electric hot water heater. Instead of a gas range, an induction cooktop. Instead of a conventional range hood, they’ve selected a recirculating one that captures particulate and filters the air. Instead of a conventional clothes dryer, they’ve selected a condensing clothes dryer. Furthermore, Charles and Erika opted to forego a fireplace altogether. In the case of the fireplace, furnace, boiler, clothes dryer, and range hood, large penetrations through the building envelope to eject exhaust air (and thereby energy) directly outdoors have been eliminated, improving the home’s overall air-tightness, and thus, energy-efficiency.

…the Province of Ontario got down to making only 4 percent of its electricity from gas and none from coal, so cooking with electricity is now much cleaner in terms of CO2, not to mention all the other things we have learned about the effects of gas cooking on indoor air quality. Induction ranges and LED bulbs keep reducing the amount of electricity you actually need to do things.[1]

Induction cooktops respond quickly, avoid gas combustion, are tops in energy efficiency, and limit risk of burns.[2]

Although they have not installed roof-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, they have made their home “solar-ready.” A conduit has been roughed-in from their rooftop directly to their mechanical room, meaning once they decide to install PV panels it will be as simple as plug-and-play, and they’ll be implementing the third R of sustainability: Recycle renewable energy actively.

Charles and Erika’s electricity bill for their first month living in their new home wasn’t far off from the national average, which at first came across as a disappointment. They soon realized that their electricity bill was their only bill, and thus were VERY excited. Not only were they able to do away with their natural gas bill and the pesky ‘delivery charge’, but they were able to do away with their gasoline bill at the pumps: having purchased an electric vehicle (EV), their monthly electricity bill includes EV charging; what amounts to hundreds of dollars saved on a monthly basis.

Ambitious engineering can solve the technical side of the equation, and politicians have the power to mandate performance targets; but the benefits of good architecture truly amount to more than the sum of their parts.

An all-electric future is the best way to achieve our carbon emission targets without compromising our economy, our enjoyment, or our way of life.

Sustainable’s next home for clients Roland and Helga, slated to begin construction this summer, is on track to meet even better targets. Two systems were considered: one conventional and the other all-electric; both with the option of a supplementary rooftop PV system. Option 1 includes a natural gas boiler for in-floor heating and hot water, with an electric mini-split AC; Option 2 an electric air source heat pump forced air system for both heating and cooling, and an electric heat pump water heater.

As only half the energy demands of Option 1 are electric, a half-sized solar PV array was considered. As the entire energy demands of Option 2 are electric, a full-sized solar PV array was considered, and was selected, allowing for a “Net-Zero Energy Home”, which generates as much energy annually on-site as it consumes.

Even with the higher capital cost of an all-electric system and full-sized solar PV array, the 20 year life cycle cost of Option 2 works out to approximately $20k less than the more conventional natural gas equivalent, proving that not only is all-electric good for the planet, it’s great for your wallet.

Sustainable. Architecture for a Healthy Planet can help you realize your all-electric, zero-carbon future, dreams.