Welcome to the Earth Hour edition of my adventure in cutting fossil fuels at home! Read the other posts in the series here:
Part 1: Reducing Heat Demand
Part 2: Converting Hot Water Tank to Electric
Part 3: Converting Gas Range to Induction
Part 4: Upgrading Central AC to Heat Pump
Part 5: Summary and Discussion
As you hopefully read in my last post, I was able to eliminate fossil fuel combustion at home within about one year of moving in. I thought one last post was in order to provide the overall costs and savings and to provide a few additional thoughts and discussion points. The primary reasons for my decision to eliminate fossil fuels are: 1) to combat the climate crisis, which is being caused by the combustion of fossil fuels and 2) to try to prove that it isn’t extremely difficult or expensive to eliminate fossil fuels in a Toronto climate. The goal around the latter point is to be an example to others and, perhaps, to government leaders who may be looking for ideas on how to achieve their emissions reductions targets.
The major principles behind de-carbonizing are fairly straightforward: 1) reduce heating demand and 2) replace gas fired appliances. In my case, this involved adding insulation to my attic, sealing up air leaks with caulking, replacing a gas-fired hot water tank with electric, replacing a gas fired range with induction electric, and replacing my central AC unit with a reversible heat pump. Each house is unique and if you are undertaking a similar project, you may have to do some of these things and perhaps other things I didn’t.
Cost and Savings
First, let’s take a look at the costs. All of these projects combined cost me a total of $9,627, including HST. Based on a report from Altus Group and number of households in Canada, the average annual renovation/repair spend is about $5,600. This average could be skewed upwards by ultra-wealthy people making lavish renovations, but I think it at least shows that the up front cost of de-carbonization isn’t completely out to lunch. I provided an additional column for incremental cost, meaning the additional cost above replacing with status quo fossil fuel equipment. Here’s a breakdown of the costs:
|Item||Absolute Cost||Incremental Cost||Notes|
|Attic Insulation||$352||$352||Received a rebate of $1,400|
|Water Tank and Range||$4,350||$2,318||If you are doing a kitchen reno or replacing a range, the incremental purchase cost of an induction range over equivalent gas range is zero based on the brand I purchased. Cost of running an electrical line could be around $450. All of the cost of the hot water tank is incremental because I am claiming the savings of the hot water rental contract, which would have paid for a gas tank replacement. If you own a forced draft gas fired tank that needs replacement, replacing with electric would have an incremental cost of about $50 (assume $450 of electric work to install 240V line for tank minus $400 because electric water tanks are less expensive to buy)|
|Heat Pump||$4,756||$791||If you are planning to replace your central AC unit, the incremental cost of installing a heat pump over an AC unit is about $700+tax|
Next, let’s take a look at the savings. All the projects combined to save about $320 per year on utilities. Here’s a breakdown of the savings:
|Item||Annual Savings (projected based on 5-year average weather)||Note|
|Gas cost savings||$618||This includes $211 of actual gas charges and $296 of account fees. It is important to eliminate gas entirely if you want to achieve cost savings due to high account charges|
|Tank Rental||$459||Eliminating the expensive tank rental is a big part of my savings. These savings could be lower depending on your situation|
|Added Electricity Cost||-$760|
If you plan to time these types of projects with equipment end of life (most of the equipment I replaced was nearing end of life), it would be reasonable to look at the incremental cost over continuing with fossil fuels. The payback period is around the 10-11 year range. This payback period seems ok to me and represents a lower lifetime cost of ownership, however it isn’t exactly world-beating.
I’ll do a couple of permutations of the numbers to give an idea what other scenarios might look like. For example, if I did not have a hot water tank rental contract, incremental cost would have been only $1,591. However, without the savings from the tank rental contract, my annual utility costs actually go up by $140 per year, so no payback other than the warm fuzzy feeling of contributing to a more livable present and future for ourselves and our children.
But what happens if the carbon tax rises to $170 per ton, as planned by the federal government? In this case, the carbon tax would add almost $300 to my annual gas bill, bringing my total savings up to $615 per year and payback down to 5.5 years. Given that $170 per ton more closely reflects the actual social cost of fossil fuel combustion, it is a fair bet that this will come to pass. This is an extremely important consideration to make if you are installing equipment that will last 15 years.
What if the project was supported by a carbon reduction incentive? As a reference, rebates are available for installing a new gas furnace ($250) and new gas water heater (up to $400), but these projects actually lock in long term fossil fuel use. If a similar rebate of $650 were offered to install a central heat pump in place of an AC unit, the incremental cost of that project would be largely eliminated. This would bring the incremental payback under 9 years.
What if I needed to keep my gas account? In my case I was able to fully eliminate gas, but perhaps you have an AC replacement upcoming before you can get to adding insulation. Or perhaps you like a higher temperature in winter that would periodically require extra heat. In my case, this would reduce the savings by $296 (account fees!) plus whatever gas was used. My net savings would essentially be zero and therefore the payback would once again be the warm and fuzzy feeling.
Feel free to get in touch if you want me to take a look at some other scenarios.
Overall, I think this project has shown that it is quite achievable to operate a house with no fossil fuels in the Toronto’s climate at a very similar utility cost to a gas house. For this reason and given what we know about the impacts of climate change, I believe it is unconscionable to construct new houses with a fossil gas connection. In my case, converting an existing house required upfront cost of a similar order of magnitude of the average Canadian renovation budget. Whether there is a good financial payback is highly dependent on the situation of the household in question. I should also mention that financial payback isn’t the be all and end all. We spend money on things with no financial payback all the time. I would still do this project again even if my utility bills stayed the same or increased because when my daughter is old enough to ask me about what I did to combat the climate crisis I want to have answers.
Heat pump, Electric Water Tank, and Attic Insulation
Overall emissions reductions compared to my baseline use from last winter are 4.9 tons CO2 equivalent. Compared to the baseline of the previous owner (estimated based on discussions with utility), emissions reductions are 6.3 tons. With approximately 14,000,000 households in Canada, the potential for CO2 reduction is massive.
Barriers to Implementation
In my opinion, there are no technical barriers to implementation of this type of project. There are some financial barriers that I believe could be overcome with policy. The primary barrier that I faced was psychological/emotional. At almost every step of the process, I met resistance/doubt from contractors, installers, and service providers that are in a position of authority to advise people on home renovation decisions.
I heard many negative comments when planning and asking questions, such as “downgrading to electric,” “electric could cost more,” “we only did a few of these installs this year,” etc. Each of these jabs created a lot of doubt in my mind and made me feel like I’m the crazy one for trying to stop burning fossil fuels, even though burning fossil fuels is widely known to be causing extreme negative impacts to people and other species all over the world. I don’t think I would have been able to push through with this project if I wasn’t a mechanical engineer working in the energy management field (for example, I did my own calculations, harangued people for performance data, etc, to be confident in the system).
More government support for this type of project would make it more common, less scary, and fight the perception that fossil gas in houses is basically an unquestioned reality. Providing a rebate through contractors, for example, could potentially turn them into an ally in the fight against climate change. Imagine if contractors brought this up as an option whenever someone asked for an AC replacement or furnace replacement quote. I think the idea of eliminating fossil fuels from homes could be (and must be) normalized fairly quickly.
Ways I was Lucky
Whenever we talk about fighting climate change, we must also talk about climate justice. I have to acknowledge that I am extremely privileged to be in a position to take these actions to cut my emissions. I am privileged to have a stable job, privileged to have enough savings to pay for the project, privileged to have the educational background to be able to navigate the vacuum of non fossil fuel information amongst contractors and service providers, privileged to own a home and have control over the energy sources, and more. Few people have all these advantages and that’s why I viewed this fossil fuel elimination project as more of a responsibility/base requirement than any sort of virtuous act.
Part of the reason I wrote this series is to provide an example of eliminating fossil fuels to encourage others in the same position to investigate what would be possible in their circumstance and to try to break the culture of acceptance of fossil fuels in the home. I am leveraging this story to demonstrate to governments that it wouldn’t take a huge amount of financial support to help people cut emissions. Supports are needed to make the choice to ditch fossil fuels easy and affordable, especially for people that rent, live in affordable housing, condos, co-ops, etc. Here’s a case study where the City of Toronto installed heat pumps to reduce utility costs and increase comfort of residents (although the base case was electric resistance heating, not gas). These types of projects need to accelerate especially in applications to displace fossil fuels. Support may be needed for people that can’t afford increased utility costs if their HVAC situation isn’t as favorable and de-carbonizing comes with higher utility costs.
There were a few situational factors particular to my house that made it easier and more economic to ditch fossil fuels. First, the windows and walls were in good shape and reasonably well insulated. So, thanks to the previous owner for taking that big chunk of cost out of my hands. Second, the extremely high cost hot water tank contract was a big boost to the savings. For some reason, hot water tank rentals are very common in Ontario, so perhaps this isn’t a unique situation but I thought it was worth highlighting. Third, I didn’t have an instantaneous gas fired hot water system. These are more difficult and costly to electrify because they require a very high energy input which is more suited to gas. Fourth, the mild climate in Toronto makes auxiliary heat less of a worry as outside temperature rarely approaches -20C. As a result, it was much easier to cancel the gas account outright, saving the account fees that are the largest portion of the gas bill. We are also lucky in Ontario to have an electric grid that is largely emissions free, although this is not guaranteed going forward and we must continue to press politicians for clean electricity.
Other Sources of Household Emissions
Food: After fossil fuel combustion, the second largest source of household emissions is typically food. The foods with the highest greenhouse gas emissions are lamb and beef and it’s not really close. By eliminating those two foods, dietary emissions can be almost cut in half. I’m not super strict about this – for example, I would happily eat any meal someone else makes for me. However, when I’m buying groceries and making food at home I don’t buy/cook beef or lamb.
Unfortunately, the study referenced above didn’t specifically look at a non beef diet, but I would assume it would fall close to the fish diet since farmed fish have a similar emissions profile to chicken and pork. So the non-beef diet emits around 1.5 tons per year compared to almost 3 tons for a diet heavy in beef.
Buying “Stuff”: In his book “Being the Change,” which was part of my inspiration for being more vocal about emissions reductions, Peter Kalmus estimates about 0.5 kg of CO2 per dollar spent on stuff (i.e. vehicles, TVs, clothes, etc). That would translate to 0.4 kg per Canadian Dollar at current exchange rates. If you spend $1,000 on stuff, you can estimate about 0.4 tons of CO2 emissions. So if you want to reduce emissions, buy less stuff!
Driving: If possible, avoid using a car. Other options include walking, cycling, and transit. If a car is necessary, there are many advantages to electric vehicles over gas. Personally, I have chosen not to own a car and I rent electric vehicles for any longer trips. I go most places by bike.
BBQ: I guess I probably use about one tank of propane per year for BBQing. This represents about 26kg of CO2 emissions. There are electric BBQs commonly used elsewhere in the world, but availability is sparse in North America.
Thanks so much for reading this series and good luck with your own fossil fuel elimination projects – we can kick the fossil fuel habit together! I look forward to writing many similar blogs about major upcoming emissions reduction projects at UHN!