Conservation & Energy Management Manager, Innovative Technologies & Projects, FortisBC
In the face of the climate crisis, all eyes are on our energy supply, but a comprehensive pathway to net zero runs also through our energy demand. One BC energy provider is seeing the potential for incredible reductions in energy consumption through a process of deep energy retrofits.
As we strive for net zero, it’s important to remember that the greenest energy of all is the energy we don’t use. While clean generation technologies like wind, solar, and Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) make a huge difference in lowering the overall carbon footprint of our energy generation, the most aggressive emissions targets will simultaneously require that our demand for energy fundamentally decrease. But, when our society and lifestyle require significant energy consumption, the idea of cutting back can be intimidating. In British Columbia, FortisBC is testing promising strategies to dramatically lower energy use in both single-family homes and multifamily buildings, which is essential to achieving the climate action goals from all levels of government.
FortisBC, in one form or another, has been providing energy to customers in the province for well over a century. Today, it manages an extensive network of infrastructure that serves 1.2 million customers, and it very much wants to fill the needs of those customers as efficiently as possible. With modern assessment techniques, it has become convinced that the amount of energy being wasted is far larger than we had previously imagined. Through a process of deep energy retrofits, it’s now exploring ways that the energy footprint of homes and businesses can be reduced by 50 percent or more without any compromise being made to the service and comfort provided.
“The concept of energy efficiency has been around for a long time, but deep energy retrofits are relatively new to the industry,” says Jim Kobialko, FortisBC’s Conservation and Energy Management Manager, Innovative Technologies & Projects. “What’s different about a deep retrofit is that it’s a comprehensive program that’s air sealing first. Basically, when you’re looking at an existing building, a deep energy retrofit is improving the envelope and it’s improving the mechanical. For the envelope, it’s looking at things like replacing the cladding, replacing the windows with more efficient windows, and making the building tighter. For the mechanical, it’s replacing the existing appliance or heating system with a more efficient heating system. Together, when you incorporate both envelope and mechanical upgrades, you can reduce emissions in that building by 50 percent or more.”
Nothing is greener than efficiency
The goal is to combine these retrofits, which then lowers energy demand, with a transition to RNG and other cleaner forms of energy. “The beauty of linking RNG with energy efficiency, like deep energy retrofits, is that you’re using less of the energy requirement and effectively providing a path toward net zero in buildings with existing natural gas systems. It’s definitely really exciting when you combine both together. You’re reducing your emissions, and you’re also reducing operating costs for managing the building,” says Kobialko.
For that matter, a properly-managed deep energy retrofit provides benefits that go beyond the environmental and the economical. “When you’re doing a deep energy retrofit, you’re also improving the air quality within the building,” says Kobialko. “There are also safety improvements. A lot of these existing buildings are older and aren’t meeting current building code requirements. Some of the buildings we looked at, they actually don’t have working heating systems or ventilation systems. When you’re looking at overheating, and with the more extreme heat we’ve experienced, deep energy retrofits can play a key role in keeping the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the wintertime.”
The opportunities for reducing energy consumption are more robust than we imagined
FortisBC has a number of deep energy retrofit projects underway as part of its pilot program, including 36 single-family homes and four commercial buildings ranging from low-rise wood-framed buildings all the way up to concrete construction high-rises. The approach required and the specific gains realized obviously vary from building to building, but the fundamental philosophy is consistent: identify and solve the inefficiencies of the envelope while simultaneously improving the efficiency of the mechanical. In every case, the gains are considerable, but in some specific examples, the outcome is far more significant than even FortisBC had projected.
“For example, in one building that we’re working on with the City of Vancouver, the estimates show 77 percent emission reductions,” says Kobialko. “That’s where we’re looking at incorporating gas heat pumps, we’re looking at including envelope, we’re upgrading the windows, and through all of that, you can get to 77 percent emission reductions and layer on RNG and you can effectively get to a net-zero emissions building today, which is such a powerful narrative.”
Making the road to net zero easier to walk together
As with any pilot project, the hope is that these results will provide a strong case for rolling out something similar to a full-fledged rebate program with open enrolment. These deep energy retrofits that are underway very much represent a fact-finding mission, but the data that’s already rolling in paints an incredibly compelling picture. And, just as FortisBC was aware that it needed this pilot project to develop a deeper understanding of what was possible, it recognized that there existed a knowledge gap and capability gap preventing home and building owners from undertaking these retrofits themselves.
“Let me tell you, if I was trying to do this by myself on my own home without knowledge on how to do a construction project, it would be very, very difficult,” says Kobialko. “FortisBC is conducting this pilot to lead the charge in showcasing a path to support customers in their decision-making. We’re going on this journey together.”
With the expense, complexity and importance of these deep retrofit projects, success requires organizations working together in partnership. To discuss the work FortisBC is doing or be considered for future pilot projects, you’re encouraged to get in touch.