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Emissions plan limits choice, drives up costs; Consumers should lead way, Roger Dall'Antonia writes (Opinion)

Jul 29, 2016

VANCOUVER SUN – The City of Vancouver’s pursuit of new regulations for residential and commercial buildings will have expensive consequences for homeowners, renters, landlords and business operators.

Few would criticize Vancouver city council’s desire to address climate change impacts at a community level. But FortisBC believes the city’s new zero-emissions building plan is not the appropriate way to tackle this important challenge.

It should raise concern among people who hope to afford to live or rent in Vancouver, or run a business there. In the city’s own words, “This is a plan to fundamentally shift building practice in Vancouver in just under 10 years.”

Residents in new office and residential buildings, including single-family homes, will lose access to affordable, low-carbon natural gas for home heating and hot water. Rather than providing options for people to make responsible and sustainable energy choices, the city will restrict them to a small number of prescribed energy sources.

These include expensive solar energy and localized burning of biofuels - garbage and wood waste - for neighbourhood heat distribution systems. Reliance on electric baseboard and hot water heating, which can push electricity bills five times higher in winter, is also on the city’s agenda.

The city does not appear to recognize the cost of accommodation is already out of reach for many small business operators, renters and homeowners in Metro Vancouver, or that some low-income residents already face energy affordability challenges.

There’s also the matter of duplicating the legislative responsibilities of senior governments. British Columbia’s carbon tax is putting the brakes on consumption of fossil fuels.

Federal and provincial building code requirements and performance standards, coupled with incentive and rebate programs from utilities such as FortisBC, are delivering meaningful energy-efficiency improvements in new homes, commercial buildings and institutions.

Occupants of 108,000 homes and businesses in Vancouver currently choose natural gas. That includes 103 schools where natural gas affordability helps with budget concerns and five hospitals that rely on natural gas to create steam quickly and efficiently for sanitation. The majority of new homes built each year in Vancouver choose natural gas. At the same time, overall natural gas consumption in Vancouver continues to go down, as do related emissions.

Why? Vancouverites and building owners are already making responsible energy choices. In established homes, for example, consumers are voluntarily replacing older furnaces with new natural gas systems that are up to 98 per cent efficient. Between 2014 and 2015, FortisBC customers took advantage of millions of dollars of incentives in the form of energy-efficiency rebates, which resulted in thousands of upgrades in the city and more than $1.6 million in energy cost savings.

Taking away cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas would stifle future energy innovations, which have historically been driven by consumer choice and competition in the marketplace. For example, FortisBC developed the carbon-neutral renewable natural gas program because our customers wanted it. To date, almost 7,000 customers have opted in, about 900 of whom live or do business in Vancouver.

Zero-emission fuel cells that use natural gas to provide electricity, heating and cooling are an emerging technology. It’s reasonable to expect that efficient and economic energy sources such as natural gas will support more innovation in the years ahead. By contrast, electric baseboard heating can’t be readily adapted to the biogas and geothermal options supported by the city.

Considering the negative economic impacts of the zero-emissions building plan, Vancouver should conduct a robust and thorough consultation with the public, industry and other stakeholders before taking a leap into a future where higher energy costs are assured.

Roger Dall’Antonia is FortisBC‘s executive vice-president for customer service and regulatory affairs.