How Canadians can make their homes "net zero"

A significant step in combatting the global climate change crisis starts from the home, market watchers say.

Houses and other buildings contribute to 17% of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.

In a think piece in Ensia, market watcher Marc Huninilowycz said there are already existing technologies that can help many homeowners turn their properties "net zero", such as solar panels, heat pumps, and other energy-efficient appliances.

"New homes can be built to such specifications. But even better from a climate perspective is to renovate existing homes. That's because renovation reduces the need for new building materials, which require energy to produce, transport and install in the first place," Huninilowycz said.

Michael Lio, a Toronto-based engineer and net-zero housing expert, told Ensia that Canadians could start by upgrading the exterior elements of their homes, such as windows and insulation.

However, how utility produces electricity is still a crucial factor, especially in regions where power still comes from fossil fuels.

"In the province of Ontario, where I live and work, our electricity grid is 94% carbon-free, so it's easy to get to net zero. You just switch from gas to electric and install a cold climate air-source heat pump to heat and cool your home," Lio said.

Peter Darlington, president of Solar Homes in Calgary, said the eventual goal is to disconnect from fossil fuels and self-generate renewable energy.

"The sweet spot for renovating to net zero is someone who is already planning a home renovation," he told Ensia.

Darlington said one simple strategy is to "seal and insulate the home's exterior walls to reduce heat loss." He said government rebates could partly offset the costs of net-zero efforts.

"There are lots of people spending $50,000 or more on cosmetic upgrades to their homes. Why not spend a little more? A net-zero upgrade will save you money — and help the environment — every year for the rest of your life," he said.

This, however, should not discourage homeowners with limited budgets, as they can also make an effort to achieve a net-zero home.

"Those on a tighter budget could have an energy audit to identify energy-saving opportunities with a payback in energy savings that fits their circumstances. In some cases, local utilities cover part or all of the audit fee, help with financing, or offer rebates on insulation, new windows and heating equipment," Huninilowycz said.

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