Revolutionary renos

Essential improvements for your home and the planet

What if I told you you could get $5,000 free, plus that money would pay dividends down the road? You’d be on it faster than vaccine hunters on pharmacy phone lines. Well, good news: thanks to the government’s new Greener Homes Grant, you can get $5,000 of home efficiency upgrades . . . if you’re a homeowner. (If you’re not, sit tight, we’ll get to that.) The program also shells out up to $600 for a required home energy assessment (pre- and post-renos). There’s also a $40,000 low-interest loan for deeper renovations that hasn’t launched yet, but you can sign up for an update when it does.

This initiative is good news, of course, since operating our homes and private buildings account for 13 to 17% of Canada’s emissions. Making buildings more efficient will reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs), save money, and in some cases improve health (extreme heat or attic insulation soaked in rat urine is unsurprisingly not good for you!). It will also create jobs. Who doesn’t love jobs?

How will this effort contribute to Canada’s GHG reduction goals? Well, the program could reduce national emissions by 1.5 megatonnes by 2027. Not bad, but only 1% of the way to our 2030 reductions target. According to Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze of the Pembina Institute, to keep our promises under the 2015 Paris Agreement, we need to spend $10 to $15 billion on building retrofits every year between now and 2040. By comparison, this program’s worth about $2.6 billion over seven years. It’s a step in the right direction, but still a lot of steps from the finish line.

Even so, we know I love a step, especially one where you help the environment and save money. An easy win. So if you’re a homeowner, let’s look at a few reno options that might have the biggest impacts. When we look at Canadians’ electricity use, it quickly becomes clear — heating our homes is also what’s heating up our atmosphere.

So, how to keep our cool while we preserve our heat?

  • Make it airtight. Start here. As part of your energy assessment, you’ll determine how much air is leaking out of your house’s “envelope.” Hire an air sealing professional to hunt out those sneaky leaks and stop them up. The new grant will give you between $550 and $1,000 to help make your home so airtight you could practically send it into orbit.

  • Better insulation, especially for your attic. Most Canadians worth their salt wouldn’t go outside hatless once the temperatures drop, and yet many of our houses are more or less bare-headed. Heat rises, and it’ll rise right out of your house if you don’t keep a tight lid on things. If your home was built before 1960, chances are your attic is not getting the job done. While adding insulation to an attic can run about $1,500, you’ll save between 15 and 30% on your utility bills and raise the resale value of your home. Plus you’re likely to enjoy cleaner air inside your home (condensation + outdoor pollutants makes a nasty breathable brew) and less wear and tear on your roof. (By the way, I’d kill for any insulation that isn’t primarily made of squirrel corpses, so please do it for me.)

  • New windows and doors. Turns out that those functional holes in your house can account for up to 25% of heat loss. Energy Star, which certifies appliances, also certifies windows and doors, and the government will kick in $125-$250 per window (depending on how efficient the window is). Don’t forget to seal around your windows with caulking or weatherstripping.

  • A heat pump. Heat pumps are the least sexy and yet most vital home reno if we’re going to wean ourselves off natural gas (and we need to). Heat pumps simply move heat from one place to another, either drawing on outside air (air-source heat pumps) or the ground (ground-source heat pumps). The neat thing about heat pumps is they can do both heating and cooling with very little energy. Switching from an oil-powered system may require some changes to your ductwork (although ductless systems exist), so there will be a bigger upfront cost. (But remember the feds are kicking in between $2,500 and $5,000, and provincial rebates may also apply.) This technology is one that’s still not quite mainstream, so it’s a bit more of a headache, but with all the government reno money flying about, I expect it’s about to get easier to pump it up!

These rebates may not cover the full cost of the work, but it’ll still be a significant discount, and you’ll see energy savings over the lifetime of your house. The program also grants the money after the work is done, so those without a lot of cash flow may be left out of the program.

By the way, you might be wondering: with all these renos should I just be starting from scratch and building the LEED-certified Scandinavian passivhaus of my dreams? Research says . . . absolutely not. A study by the U.S. National Trust did a lifecycle analysis on buildings in Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta over a 75-year period and found that it would take between 10 and 80 years for a new LEED building to have a comparable impact to a building that was simply renovated. The embodied carbon in materials tip the scales every time.

Homeowners, please don’t sleep on this. I just had to digest a ton of boring information I can’t even use, so walk, don’t run, and report back on how it goes.

What about the renters?

Anyone who caught my recent op-ed in the Toronto Star will be familiar with my beef with the new grant: there’s no place for the roughly 1/3 of Canadians who rent, the very group who would benefit most from increased energy efficiency. This is especially true for low-income Canadians, a group in which racialized people are overrepresented. As I wrote, “Environmental policy must remedy the inequities of our society, not reinforce them.”

There is an Energy Affordability Program for those in Ontario below a certain income threshold ($36,578 for a one-person household), but many of its changes are mere Band-Aid solutions, and we should be looking at renos to whole buildings. If your income is higher than that and you are a renter, you’ve little option but appealing to your landlord on humanitarian grounds. (Godspeed!) I also recommend writing to your MP to ask how they’ll be addressing this oversight. (Here’s my letter, which you’re free to adapt.) I’m not a policy expert, but I expect we need a combo of regulation (to make landlords do it) + government subsidy of renos (as we’re doing for homeowners) + rent protections (so affordable housing doesn’t become even harder to come by). Given that house prices are on such a steep trajectory they should make a new hole in the ozone layer any time now, many of us may be renters for life — a precarious enough position without the additional financial and health costs that come from the draughty, mouldy buildings many of us occupy.

Though structural changes aren’t available to those of who aren’t landed gentry, we can all make some small energy efficiencies I’ve written about previously. Do those things right after you’ve finished writing your MP.


TL;DR

  • Most of our home’s energy footprint comes from heating: anything you can do to keep heat in will lower your bill and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • The new Greener Homes Grant provides up to $5000 in home energy efficiency reimbursements for homeowners. Apply here.

  • Renters have been left in the cold (literally), so write your MP and ask how the government plans to support the 1/3 of Canadians who can’t make structural changes.

  • Non-structural energy efficiencies are available to us all: all the hot tips here.


Wins of the Week

“This decade is a moment of choice unlike any we have ever lived. All of us alive right now share that responsibility and that opportunity. The optimism I’m speaking of is not the result of an achievement, it is the necessary input to meeting a challenge. Many now believe it is impossible to cut global emissions in half in this decade. I say, we don’t have the right to give up or let up.” — Christiana Figueres, “The Case for Stubborn Optimism on Climate”

This week, I’m shaking my pompoms because

  • Colette and Ryan bought an electric car! (A Hyundai Kona for those who are curious. And if you missed my newsy edition on cars, check it out. Unlike houses, the energy savings of electric cars outweigh the environmental costs of making the cars.)

  • Angelina donated her grandmother’s old vinyl to Food for the Record, which sells old vinyl on Instagram and turns the money into sandwiches for unhoused people.

  • Lyn rose to this month’s making challenge and made her own salsa for the first time! Condiment conquered!

Thanks to all of you for your five minutes, your actions, and your stubborn optimism. Together we can give this whole world the green reno it needs.

xo

JK

P.S. Today’s off-topic action item is calling or writing to the prime minister; Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations; and your MP to call for the government to implement the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 231 Calls for Justice in the final report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and get serious about justice for the Indigenous residents of this land. The bodies discovered at Kamloops are only the beginning. There are also many great organizations you can support.

If you’re wondering why I’m mentioning this in my eco newsletter, please take the time to (re)read this edition, but beyond that, Indigenous people are some of the most devoted advocates for healthy land and waters, such as the current Fairy Creek blockade in B.C. or Line 3 protests. Indigenous groups around the world also protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity on a quarter of the world’s surface area. What they accomplish is amazing, considering it’s much easier to focus on things like fighting for a future liveable planet for your children if you’re not first and foremost worried about getting your kid out of foster care, about future generations if you’re not dealing with intergenerational trauma, about water scarcity down the road if you’re living under a boil-water advisory now. A thriving future world depends on more than just keeping CO2 under 350 ppm — it requires justice and opportunity for all.

Five Minutes for Planet is written by me, Jen Knoch, and edited by Crissy Calhoun. Opening photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.