The Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA) will spend the next five years looking for the most cost-effective ways to conduct energy retrofits on up to 150 homes and identifying barriers to net-zero-ready performance, under a C$4.5-million grant announced last week by Natural Resources Canada.
“The project will fund deep energy retrofits in houses and low-rise multi-unit residential buildings to demonstrate the various approaches that can be used to achieve net-zero-energy-ready performance in residential units,” NRCan said in a published announcement.
“CHBA will focus on finding the most cost-effective solutions for up to 150 residential units to help find optimum approaches to net-zero home retrofits and inform the development of energy codes for existing homes, targeting multiple building archetypes in various climate zones and varying business models.”
With more than 15 million homes across the country, “there is a lot of work to do,” CHBA added in its own release. “Many are older and in obvious need of energy upgrades, but even homes built 10 or 20 years ago are less efficient than today’s code-built homes, and can benefit from energy retrofits, especially to the net-zero level.”
Homebuilders “are continually pursuing innovation to meet the evolving needs of the industry and consumers in both new construction and renovation,” CEO Kevin Lee added in the NRCan announcement.
CHBA spokespeople had not replied to requests for further detail as The Energy Mix went to virtual press yesterday. But one of the authors of last year’s groundbreaking national retrofit mission report said the project won’t address the structural barriers impeding the mass, deep retrofit program the country needs.
“We don’t need more demonstration projects, really,” said Efficiency Canada Policy Director Brendan Haley, one of the two authors of the retrofit mission report. “We need a reshaping of markets to scale up retrofits.”
The NRCan initiative behind the grant, the Green Infrastructure – Energy Efficient Buildings Program, is based on a standard practice of issuing time-limited requests for proposals (RFPs), and with that approach “you get those actors that are either good at government relations or good at writing proposals,” Haley explained. “That’s not the same thing as putting together a network of people who could do something new and transformative.”
In contrast to a program goal of 150 home retrofits over five years, the national retrofit mission report called for virtually every home and commercial building in Canada to undergo a deep retrofit by 2035. Efficiency Canada’s analysis showed that approach eliminating the buildings’ fossil fuel consumption by 2050, making energy poverty a thing of the past, and freeing up 50 terawatt-hours of electricity for other uses—enough to eliminate 60 million tonnes of carbon pollution per year if it were used to power 10 million electric vehicles.
“The climate emergency requires the deployment of zero-carbon solutions at an unprecedented scale, speed, and level of performance,” Haley and co-author Ralph Torrie wrote at the time. “The urgency lies in the need to eliminate fossil fuel use in buildings themselves, while also achieving energy savings to free up Canada’s existing renewable energy resources to decarbonize other sectors, such as transportation, industry, and heating in new buildings.”
In response to the CHBA announcement, Haley pointed to the changes in governance and management structure that would be needed to deliver on the potential in last year’s analysis.
“Instead of time-limited RFPs to deliver demonstration projects, you would have the organizational infrastructure to produce a continuous pipeline of projects and project ideas, and there should be some confidence that if you have a transformative solution or a good idea that should be explored, that it will be funded, whether it falls within the bureaucratic stipulations or not,” he told The Energy Mix. So rather than exploring deep retrofits in different building types, “why is it not exploring what happens when you bundle together building all of the same archetype and try to develop economies of scale in retrofitting?” he asked of the CHBA project. “What happens when you can coordinate that larger scale?”
The other issue for builders experimenting with the Energiesprong model profiled in the retrofit mission report is the time and supports required for pre-development and project design, Haley added.
“It’s important to allow that design stage to take the time that is needed, then seamlessly flow towards a good project if it’s warranted, to basically scale up that approach,” he explained. By the same token, project approaches that weren’t delivering on expectation could be cut short, “but that wouldn’t be anyone’s fault—you would move on to the next project, but you’ve learned from that exploration.”
Torrie, a leading energy transition analyst who signed on as research director at Corporate Knights in the months after he co-authored the retrofit mission report, had similar questions about the purpose and impact of the CHBA grant.
“There are some great people on this file at CHBA so I presume they will put the money to good use,” he said in an email. But “they need to answer the question: can the methods and business models that currently characterize residential retrofit activity in Canada be scaled so that we can retrofit at the scale required to respond to climate change?”
To move in that direction, “it would be interesting to look at the possibilities for Canada’s large homebuilding companies to get more involved in the retrofit market (as opposed to building new homes),” Torrie added, “and to assess the extent to which they might be able to bring mass implementation, modern business practices, scale economies, and efficiencies to the task that the current, fragmented retrofit industry has not been able to demonstrate.”
Based on the CHBA release, he also questioned the application of the net-zero-energy-ready target to retrofits, as opposed to new construction, and noted that the $25,000 per unit the project would likely make available “would not cover even half of the cost of doing that, perhaps not even 25%.”