There is a general social consensus that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that includes emissions from using fossil fuels in home heating. But how to do that is becoming a confusing and potentially expensive question for thousands of homeowners.
THE MAGIC WAND OF LEGISLATION
Some well-meaning ecological activists believe that the wave of a legislative wand will make fossil fuel use for home heating simply disappear. They fail to recognize that there is a critical difference between “totally banning” oil or gas and “significantly reducing” the use of fossil fuels. “Totally banning” is disruptive and can have significant financial affects on individual homeowners while “significantly reducing” can get to 80% or 90% of their objective without disruption. In fact, a total ban fails to recognize that Québec’s ecologically correct hydro electric grid needs some alternative fuel in homes to function safely and economically. For a detailed explanation of the need for peak load shedding, read my open letter to Montreal municipalities.
The confusion comes basically because a lot of players are getting involved and political agendas are trying to force the ecological issue without regard for the individual homeowners. I agree with the ecological objectives and with some of the efforts to take the whole picture into account, but some of what is going on is not in a homeowner’s interest. The bottom line in trying to sort out reality from political or commercial objectives is that 100% electrical heating is not the most economical for a Québec homeowner, nor the most advantageous for Québec as a whole. The surprisingly good agreement signed in July 2021 between Énergir/Hydro Québec/Gov of Québec is an example of ecological compromise for the common good.
So what is going on?
Deal signed: A Hybrid Energy deal between Énergir, Hydro Québec and the government of Québec initiated in January 2021 has been signed this summer now waiting for approval from the Régie de l’énergie, which shouldn’t be an obstacle. Québec will underwrite 75% to 100% of the cost of individual home conversion, Hydro Québec will share the profits with Énergir who will lose money on the deal. The objective is to convert most residential gas heating to bi-energy as fast as possible. This will ensure a continued supply of natural gas for a number of years while radically decreasing the amount burned as well as increasing electrical heating but giving Hydro Québec a way to cut peak energy use in the winter. The timetable is to hopefully roll out the program in the Spring of 2022.
According an article in the Devoir ----Québec Provincial Legislation has been tabled this summer: Stop all new installations of residential oil heating after December 2021 – and stop all repairs to existing residential oil heating devices after December 2022. Given the importance of the rural vote and the widespread rural use of oil heating, it is highly doubtful that such an absolutist approach will ever become law. Independent of what delays or modifications may come, it puts the writing on the wall that some elements in the Québec government want to accelerate and override all municipal efforts in this direction and move very quickly. Beaconsfield is one Island-of-Montreal municipality that is moving clearly towards the hybrid energy approach that is taking form with natural gas, and they are proposing that include all other sources of heat, including oil.
Rumors say that Énergir may stop maintaining their residential gas lines after 2035. This is totally unconfirmed but very bothersome for homeowners to contemplate. Someday this will probably happen but since the Hydro Québec deal mentioned above to control peak winter loads will provide the funds to Énegir allowing them to maintain those lines despite a radical reduction in gas sales, such a move is not likely in the midterm.
Contractors are telling people now is the time to go 100% electric, a move that is clearly not in the homeowner’s financial interest and in fact not in the interest of the common good for Québec. As long as the Dual Energy rate is available from Hydro, going 100% electric is the least economical way to heat in this province with homeowners discovering they have doubled or tripled their total utility billing. Again, for details follow this link explaining why we need the alternative fuels.
How does a homeowner work their individual way around all of this? What are the options?
All economical solutions centre around the Hydro Québec Dual-Energy reduced rate – and that is based on the use of hybrid heating.
The dual energy rate is most profitable when a thermal pump (heat pump) is thrown into the mix (as a thermal pump produces heat for about 1/3rd the cost of electric resistance heating): an electrical thermal pump and a fuel fired heat source. That often means some electrical heat plus a thermal pump and the fuel fired heat source for cold days only. Tri-Energy is an advanced variation of this with an electrical duct heater and an advanced control system to smooth out the thermal pump variations for comfort and keep the fuel fired source (furnace or boiler) really off until -12C.
Of significant note, the low Dual-Energy (DT) electrical rate is in effect whenever it is warmer than -12C (-15C in some regions) which means that your summer air conditioning suddenly costs you about 1/3rd of what you pay with the regular residential electrical rate (D).
The practical dual fuel options are: oil, gas, propane or wood pellets.
So – what to do?
If you have natural gas heating, keep it, wait until Spring 2022 and then use the new subsidy to convert to hybrid heating. You don’t have to do this, but getting 75% to 100% of the conversion paid for by the Quebec government is not an opportunity to miss and you will probably cut your annual heating costs by half or more.
If you must change your furnace or boiler while you still have gas, get one that can be easily converted from natural gas to propane in preparation for when the day comes that natural gas is no longer available at your address. That allows an easy conversion with little capital costs for you or an eventual new owner. Propane is almost as easy to use as natural gas. Although it is more expensive, in a dual-energy or tri-energy system you will be using so little propane that the fuel cost difference is not so bad.
Generally, you want to stretch out the use of your oil furnace or boiler until either the oil tank or the furnace or boiler needs replacing. Then change everything to one of the other hybrid systems – all the ductwork will still be useful and maybe even the chimney if your new system needs a chimney. You could also change sooner if you can profit from a subsidy or you just have a convenient moment, like a major renovation, to make the change. Yes residential OIL heating is going to die first but I wouldn’t change it out if it is still working because there will certainly be subsidies to accompany the phasing out of oil heating.
Yes, I do believe that pellet boilers and furnaces will become a major part of our heating options, but it is not for everyone, and it is still in a developmental stage. The technology is well established where Europe has at least a 5-year head start on us. Many appliances on the market do not have Canadian certifications, which is an insurance problem. Bio-mass boilers are more efficient than bio-mass forced air systems – and we have more furnaces than boilers. Some promotion has been made of simple oil furnace/boiler pellet replacement burners. That is an attractive idea, but they require a lot of handling and maintenance and do not seem to have a good track record.
Because you need to feed pellets to the furnace or boiler pellet heating appliances are not much of an urban reality for the moment. Even though bags of pellets are already available in renovation centres in Quebec, who wants to lug around several tons a year of 40-pound bags of pellets? Rural homes have the place for automatic silos, but truck delivery right now is limited to Québec City and most successful urban bio-mass projects have large central heating plants for a number of homes or condos all heated from one boiler. Someone else does the dirty work. It is not practical to consider full heating with pellets in Montreal sized apartments. In addition, a pellet boiler can cost as much as three times a gas boiler – the savings in fuel costs may not give you a very good return on investment. But wood pellet appliances with automatic start and temperature features can easily combine with electrical heating in a hybrid system which can qualify for the Dual Energy rate from Hydro. The real problem is, if you are using Dual Energy, you won't be burning very many pellets -- less lugging around, but harder to justify the capital costs.
RELATIVE FUEL COSTS
Since we are talking about money – let’s look at relative fuel costs. The following chart from ÉcoHabitation shows the cost for a unit of heat (1,000 BTU) for each of Québec’s primary heating sources. A cord of hardwood is the least expensive – but that often doesn’t cover delivery and certainly does not cover carrying it into the house when needed. Then natural gas is second in line. The wood pellets or granules, then electricity, then propane, then oil. Electricity and Granules are about the same cost – but not the same trouble to get into the house and not the same maintenance on the system – unless you are on the Dual Energy plan with Hydro, where Electricity would drop way below the cost of hardwood and the fuel you are using would only be used for a few days a year. That is why we want Dual Energy electricity together with a fuel to qualify for the Dual Energy rate to minimize our annual heating costs. It is real long term heating costs that provide the positive payback for all of this work, which also makes reducing greenhouse gasses a profitable undertaking.
Do not go for 100% electric heating but study your individual options on a timeline that keeps your heating costs to a minimum as things change around you.
The fact is that total bans of fossil fuels is not a good course of action because of the Quebec climate and Hydro Quebec’s need to protect from winter overload of their electrical grid. However, a drastic reduction in home heating reliance on fossil fuels is realizable and economically viable for both homeowners and Quebec as a whole.
Come back -- I will be keeping this article up to date as things evolve.