Guelph's got game

November 9, 2021

 

   

Why does PV matter?

Solar arrayIt’s worth taking a quick detour to discuss why solar power generation matters in the discussion about climate. When solar photovoltaic (PV) systems produce electricity, they don’t emit any of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause climate change. PV produces the most electricity when the sun is in the sky for the longest, namely in the weeks of June and July that are on either side of the summer solstice. These happen to be the same weeks when electricity demand typically reaches its annual peak, as temperatures rise, power-hungry air conditioning is used to beat the heat, and traditionally natural gas power generation is fired up to supply the last few megawatt hours. So at the very time of the year when the grid is struggling to keep up with electricity demand, solar arrays are producing the very most they can. This means that the more solar generation capacity there is, the less we need to call on GHG-emitting natural gas power plants.

   

Why do EVs matter? 

Electric carsThere are two answers to that question: energy, and carbon. EVs are three to five times more energy efficient than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. This is partly because much more of the fuel energy is delivered directly into torque to turn the wheels (ICE vehicles lose a lot of that fuel value as heat, which is why they need a radiator to dissipate it). It is also partly because EVs recover energy when they decelerate, through regenerative braking. So right out of the gate, an EV uses a lot less energy than an equivalent ICE vehicle. 

On the carbon side, here in Ontario we generate most of our electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric facilities, both of which emit virtually no GHGs. We still have natural gas generation for peak periods, but EV owners generally charge their cars with off-peak electricity, plugging in at night when rates are cheaper and the gas plants are idle. Even in areas where electricity is dirtier, the emissions of a single fossil fuel plant are generally lower per kilowatt hour than those of millions of individual ICE cars. So although EVs are better for the atmosphere than ICEs wherever you may be, this is particularly true in Ontario.

When it comes to climate, Guelph - or more accurately, Guelphites - are on it. In surveys and opinion polls, they consistently rate it as a top priority. But members of our community also back up their words with real action. They have enthusiastically adopted rooftop solar and electric cars. What does this portend for uptake of the energy efficiency retrofit program that Our Energy Guelph hopes to see delivered in the community?

Back in 2017, the City-commissioned community task force (that became Our Energy Guelph) engaged many Guelphites in a conversation about the climate, and how it has been impacted by human activity - principally our use of energy. In these open-ended discussions, Guelphites consistently expressed their desire for their city to be a climate leader, with targets that would be at the front of the pack whether at the local, provincial, or national level. This clear message played a key role in selecting the goal of making our community net zero carbon by 2050. In May of 2018, when Guelph City Council adopted this target, it was considered aggressive. However, a few months later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report recommending the exact same target at a global level. It continues to be our goal today.

In September, Our Energy Guelph commissioned another poll which showed similar results to those of 2017. When asked what they felt was the most important issue in the federal election campaign, 27% of Guelphites rated climate as their top priority, putting it in first place - well ahead of the runner-up issue of health care at 21%. Three quarters (73%) of respondents said that Guelph should be a leader in its response to climate change.

It’s easy to advocate for aggressive climate targets in discussions at the Farmers’ Market (remember those?) or when responding to a survey on your smartphone. But targets themselves do nothing; the atmosphere doesn’t care if a community declares that it will reduce emissions by 50%, 80%, or 100% by whatever date. What truly matters are the real changes that are implemented to achieve the goal. And Guelphites are making those real changes.

Also in September we learned about another way that the people in our community are stepping up in the fight against climate change: electric vehicles (EVs). Per capita, Guelph has 17% higher than the provincial average number of battery electric cars registered. For plug-in hybrid vehicles, the gap is even larger at 36%. Again back in 2017, the task force gathered data regarding the adoption of rooftop solar in the community, compared to the rest of the province. We learned that Guelph had 50% higher than the provincial average of rooftop solar installations. Our community is doing more than its fair share to provide a clean alternative to natural gas for peak power supply.

Polls, solar panels, and electric cars are all great, but as it turns out the most impactful action that Guelphites can take relates to something lurking in their basements - the trusty furnace and water heater. Buildings account for more than half of our community-wide GHG emissions, and most of these emissions come from burning natural gas for space heating and domestic hot water. To solve the climate problem, we need to get off gas. This means eliminating natural gas furnaces and water heaters, replacing them with heat pumps (air source or ground source), solar hot water, and district heating that uses renewable fuels like biomass. For older buildings, it also means improving the building exterior (plugging leaks, adding insulation, and upgrading windows and doors), so that the new heating system doesn’t have to work as hard. Only once all that’s on the table does it make sense to pursue the sexier “grow your own” capabilities - rooftop solar (if it isn’t there already), battery storage, and an EV charger.

This is where PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) comes in. The municipality has a stake in keeping energy costs low, keeping emissions down, and generally improving the quality of our building stock so that it is more resilient to the extreme weather events that are becoming ever more common. So it makes sense for the municipality to offer a tool to help all this to happen. In Ontario (and most other Canadian jurisdictions) that tool is called a Local improvement Charge (LIC). An LIC looks a bit like a loan, except instead of borrowing money from a bank, you borrow from (or more accurately through) the municipality. That money goes to pay the contractor for the time, materials, and equipment that go into the energy project. The liability is then attached to the property, and the owner makes interest and principal payments to/through the municipality in much the same way they pay their property taxes. The savings offset these additional payments; the home is more comfortable, quiet, healthy, and energy efficient; less GHGs are emitted; and all’s right with the world.All of this takes quite a bit of money. Your home energy project doesn’t have to be very ambitious to reach a budget of $40K or more, and few people have that kind of money kicking around. The project will generally pay its own way through the utility bill savings it produces, but that initial cash outlay is a huge hurdle. 

OEG intends to work with the City of Guelph to bring a PACE program using LICs to Guelph. It is a pivotal part of our Pathway to Net Zero Carbon. We expect Guelphites will eagerly embrace PACE the same way they did rooftop solar and EVs. In 2022, we hope to find out.

 

Alex Chapman

Executive Director