Improving Energy Efficiency in Canadian Buildings: An Overview of Retrofitting
Written By: Zoe Zakrzewska
Edited By: Jackson Hejtmanek
Buildings are an essential component of the modern lifestyle – these structures are where we reside, work, shop and entertain ourselves. In order to support these activities and services, buildings use a large amount of energy and thus are a major source of carbon emissions. Approximately 27 percent of total global energy sector emissions stem from building operations (IEA, 2022).
As the world looks to lower its carbon emissions, the building sector finds itself in a unique position: these structures have long lifespans, meaning most existing buildings will still be in use decades into the future. By 2040, it is estimated that two thirds of the global building stock will be composed of structures that currently exist, and in Canada, 70 percent of buildings standing today will still be functional by 2050 (Verrière, 2020; Architecture 2030, 2023). Therefore, while it is certainly important to ensure that any new buildings are being designed and built in a manner that minimizes emissions, it is also essential that existing buildings are actively being upgraded to become more energy-efficient.
Energy-efficiency retrofits are changes upgrading components and systems of a building in order to improve its energy performance. Not only do these changes decrease buildings’ environmental impact, but the resulting lower energy bills often lead to a net monetary gain in the long run. Retrofits involve a variety of different modifications and updates, each affecting different building systems.
Lighting upgrades are one of the most common types of energy conservation measures, and often involve switching to LED light bulbs, the implementation of advanced control systems, and other measures (Grover, 2022). This alteration is a relatively easy retrofit option, considering the changes are relatively quick and inexpensive to implement. However, improved lighting efficiency can have a significant impact, particularly in commercial and institutional buildings, where 13.5% of energy use is spent on lighting (Natural Resources Canada, 2022).
Two other major systems that can be upgraded through retrofitting are the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) and the water heating systems of a building. Both of these systems are often improved through fuel switching: machinery using more inefficient fuels like oil or gas are replaced with technologies using more efficient and cleaner fuel sources, like electricity (Envizi, 2022). Fuel switching has the potential to have huge impacts considering the sheer amount of energy that HVAC systems and water heating systems require. In Canada’s cold climate, space heating is the largest source of energy consumption: it constitutes 64% of energy use in residential buildings and 56% in commercial buildings (Natural Resources Canada, 2018). Water heating is another major energy consumption source, and accounts for 19% and 8% of energy used in residential buildings and commercial buildings, respectively (Natural Resources Canada, 2018).
Retrofits also can focus on reducing the loss of energy from buildings to the outside environment. Creating a high performing building envelope, which is the physical component separating the indoors building area from the outdoors, reduces energy loss and decreases the need for supplemental energy. Improvements are made to the exterior walls, roof, floor, doors, and windows of a building. Adding better performing insulation to a building envelope can significantly reduce heat transfer through surfaces (Department of Energy, n.d.). Air leakage from holes and gaps can be addressed by sealing areas with materials like tape, spray foam and caulk or installing tightly fitting doors and windows (NAIMA, 2016). Building envelope energy conservation measures altogether have the ability to reduce energy consumption by around 30 percent (Kamel and Memari, 2022).
Despite the benefits for retrofitting, barriers exist. Even though retrofitting leads to long-term savings, the initial installations can have high upfront costs. The building disruptions that come with more extensive retrofits also often disincentivize building owners. There is also a lack of knowledge in society about the benefits and process of retrofitting (Dickinson, 2021). To combat these obstacles and increase the rate of retrofitting, further incentives are necessary to provoke change.
Various schemes and programs have been created by the national government to encourage building retrofits. The Canada Greener Homes Grant initiative offers grants of up to $5,000 to Canadians who make energy-efficient retrofit upgrades to their homes (Thurton, 2021). The Deep Retrofit Accelerator Initiative offers to invest in and facilitate deep retrofits in commercial, institutional and larger multi-unit residential buildings (Natural Resources Canada, 2023). Retrofit programs created by provincial and municipal governments exist too, and many are run or co-sponsored by utility corporations: for instance, BC Hydro and Clean BC created a rebate program rewarding British Columbia home-owners that switch from fossil fuel heating sources to electric heat pumps (BC Hydro, n.d.).
However, Canada still has a long way to go if the nation hopes to achieve its emissions reductions goals. To reach the nation’s overarching goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the rate of national building retrofits of around one percent per year needs to be at least quadrupled to four or five percent and maintained until at least 2040. The public spending necessary to reach this retrofit rate is estimated to be between $10 and $15 billion dollars per year (Kennedy and Frappé-Sénéclauze, 2021). Yet, as of 2021, all existing federal, provincial and utility incentives only amounted to around $2 billion annually, and the number has not grown significantly since. This leaves a whopping funding gap of $8 to $13 billion dollars (Gottlieb, 2022).
In addition, there is a stark lack of regulation on energy efficiency in existing buildings. Stricter regulations on energy performance would obligate the poorest-performing buildings to upgrade their systems, an effective strategy to drive the retrofit rate upwards. But at the moment, virtually no minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings exist nationwide. Vancouver stands alone, only recently becoming the first Canadian city to implement such a policy (Silverman, 2022). A national retrofit code called Alterations to Existing Buildings is currently in the works, but many fear its implementation will be too late to make meaningful change (Simon, 2023).
Retrofits are overall a promising emissions reduction strategy that have the ability to make tangible impacts on Canadian climate mitigation goals. Yet without significant changes to the Canadian regulatory environment and existing incentive programs, the rate of energy-efficiency retrofits is likely to stay insufficient, and the emissions reduction changes Canada is hoping to accomplish in the building sector will not be achievable. Grant and loan programs need to undergo massive expansions, and more stringent regulations need to be implemented if Canada hopes to successfully decarbonize its existing buildings.
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