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Want to fight climate change? Get off gas!

It seems like every day the news is reporting on the increasingly dire effects of climate change. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, widespread fires, flooding and reduced global crop yields are all pointing to the fact that anticipated effects of climate change are now a reality. These threats are in line with the worst predictions from the IPCC climate reports. The need for action is urgent, and yet governments seem paralyzed in setting and achieving the necessary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets to ensure a sustainable future. We cannot afford to wait for solutions. Action is needed now.

We have the power to adapt as individuals. To date, personal action to address climate change has focused on small lifestyle changes. Reducing consumption such as eating less meat; reusing products by participating in the secondhand economy; and recycling are all easily achievable personal goals. These small adaptations make a difference, they are valuable changes for everyone to make, and yet they fail to address two of the largest personal contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: household heating and driving a gasoline-powered vehicle.

Canada is an energy-intensive society. We consistently rank near the top of the global list for energy use per capita. Our spread-out geography and large seasonal temperature variation, from sweltering summers to frigid winters, helps to explain our energy habit. A habit still being fed by a fix of fossil fuels. A habit we need to break.

In Canada heating accounts for over 60% of a typical household’s energy use.1 The majority of households in Canada use a furnace for space heating. Statistics Canada reports that natural gas is used to heat 50% of Canadian homes.Our reliance on this energy source ranks Canada 6th on the use of natural gas, consuming over 3% of the world’s supply.3 This is staggering considering our population of 38 million is less than .5% of the world’s.

Not only does the burning of natural gas generate CO2 emissions, it is itself a potent greenhouse gas: methane. Although shorter-lived in the atmosphere (think decades compared to CO2’s centuries), methane is far more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. On the timescale of 20 years, it is over 80x more powerful than CO2, and on the timescale of 100 years 28 times.4 Research has shown that the extraction of natural gas and other fossil fuels is a significant contributor to methane in the atmosphere through leaks from wells, mines and pipelines.5 Clearly, the quicker we can transition from methane to renewable energy, the better. Is there an alternative?

Electrification

The good news is that there is an alternative to natural gas and gasoline – renewable electricity. In Canada, most of our electricity already comes from renewable sources. National Resources Canada (NRCAN) reports that 67% of our electricity is currently generated from hydroelectric, wind and solar.6 This percentage will continue to increase given the rapid growth in wind and solar infrastructure. 

Electrification is the goal of adopting technologies that are powered solely by electricity. Electricity is the only energy source we have that can realistically be produced renewably at scale. By switching to electricity for heating and transportation, we can dramatically reduce our household GHG emissions. Technologies such as air-source heat pumps and electric vehicles are two things we can adopt to make a significant reduction in our use of fossil fuels.

Get off gas at home. Install a heat pump.

If your home has a natural gas furnace the simplest, most effective change you can make is to install a heat pump. Heat pumps are a technology that exploits the difference in temperature between the interior and exterior of your home to transfer heat from one to the other. If you have a refrigerator or air conditioner in your home, you are already benefitting from heat pump technology.

A heat pump is an electrical device that can transfer heat from one place (the heat source) to another (the heat sink). It does this by harnessing the fact that compressing a gas causes it to heat up, by concentrating its heat energy into a smaller space. This is the same phenomenon that causes a bike pump to heat up as you inflate your bicycle’s tires. 

There are two main types of heat pumps, ground source and air source. Ground source heat pumps are more complicated and expensive to install because of the requirement to drill into the earth to access the heat source below ground. Air-source are simpler and cheaper to install because they use the outdoor air as their heat source, so we’ll focus on these for our discussion, although the basic principle is the same for both.

In order to understand how a heat pump works, it’s important to know two things: 1) When a liquid evaporates into a gas it does so by absorbing heat from a heat source; 2) When a gas cools and condenses into a liquid it does so by shedding heat energy into a heat sink.

A heat pump contains four basic components: a compressor, a condenser coil, an expansion device, and an evaporation coil. Together, these form a closed loop through which a substance, known as the refrigerant, circulates to transport the heat.

Diagram showing the heating mode operation of a household air source heat pump.

Step 1 The compressor compresses the refrigerant vapour, raising its temperature and pressure. 

Step 2 The hot vapour enters the condenser coil. As it sheds heat from the condenser coil into its surroundings, the gas cools and condenses back into a warm liquid, which is still at a high pressure. A fan is used to move air over the coil to distribute the radiating heat.

Step 3 The still hot, high-pressure liquid is passed through the expansion device, which lowers its pressure and temperature. 

Step 4 The low temperature/low pressure liquid is passed through the evaporator coil where it absorbs heat from the surrounding air and evaporates. The resulting vapour is passed into the compressor, where the cycle begins over again. A fan is used to keep air moving over the coil to maximize the heat transfer. 

By placing the condenser coil inside the house and the evaporator coil outside, the heat energy from the outside air is pumped into your house. The air outside your house acts as the heat source, and the air inside of your house acts as the heat sink. Surprisingly, even cold air contains a lot of heat energy. For example, the heat content of air at minus 18°C is equivalent to 85% of the heat contained in air at 21°C.7 This allows a heat pump to heat your home even when the weather is cold outside.

The amazing thing about how a heat pump works is that it is reversible. In summer, it can act as an air conditioner. The addition of a reversing valve inside the heat pump reverses the flow direction within the system, turning the inside of your home into the heat source and the outdoors into the heat sink. This allows you to pump the heat from the inside of your home outside.

Diagram showing the heating mode operation of a household air source heat pump.

Heat pumps are highly energy efficient operating in both heating or cooling mode, as the only energy needed is the electricity to drive the compressor and fans. All the other energy comes from the heat source. Compared to a natural gas furnace which has to generate the heat from combustion at less than 100% efficiency, a heat pump is simply moving the heat, with an efficiency between 300-400% (i.e. for every unit of energy input, it can move 3-4x the equivalent heat energy).8

Get off gas on the road. Drive an electric vehicle.

It is no secret that internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles are a major contributor of air pollution, including GHG emissions. A litre of gasoline contains .63 kg of carbon. When this is burned it produces 2.3 kg of CO2. (E10 fuel, containing 10% ethanol, is only marginally better, producing 2.2 kg of CO2 emissions per litre.) In 2007, the emissions from private vehicles in Canada accounted for 70.7 million tons of GHG – that’s over 2 tons per capita.9 Clearly, there are large potential GHG savings to be made by switching to electric vehicles (EV). Consider this: the fuel consumption of a vehicle can range from more than 20.0 litres per 100 km (L/100 km) for a large SUV to less than 2.0 gasoline litres equivalent per 100 km (Le/100 km) for a mid-size battery-electric vehicle. 10

The amount of GHG gas emissions saved by driving an EV is complicated by many factors. These include: the total distance driven each year, how long it is kept on the road, the model of vehicle, the energy used in the vehicle and battery manufacturing, and how the electricity used to charge it is generated. In order to determine how much driving an EV can reduce GHG emissions you have to look at the full lifecycle of the vehicle, an analysis that includes all these aspects.

In July of 2021, The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) released a study that evaluated the full lifecycle GHG emissions comparing ICE versus battery electric vehicles (BEV). The study compared 4 regions – Europe, United States China and India – and reflects vehicles (BEV) currently on the road as well as those projected to be available in 2030. The analysis shows that while the lifecycle GHG emissions do vary by region, in all regions the trends were the same, showing significant GHG savings. 

“Results show that even for cars registered today, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have by far the lowest life-cycle GHG emissions. As illustrated in the figure below, emissions over the lifetime of average medium-size BEVs registered today are already lower than comparable gasoline cars by 66%–69% in Europe, 60%–68% in the United States, 37%–45% in China, and 19%–34% in India. Additionally, as the electricity mix continues to decarbonize, the life-cycle emissions gap between BEVs and gasoline vehicles increases substantially when considering medium-size cars projected to be registered in 2030.” -ICCT, A global comparison of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of combustion engine and electric passenger cars. 11

Graph adapted from the International Council on Clean Transportation. The graph illustrates the lifetime greenhouse gas savings of an electric vehicle compared to an internal combustion engine vehicle. Savings are shown for Europe, USA, China, and India.

Here in Canada, the Federal government has made the electrification of transportation a key component of our fight against climate change. They have mandated that by 2035 all passenger vehicle and light truck sales in Canada must be electric. The days of the traditional gas guzzler are numbered. If you want to get off gas and fight climate change, make your next vehicle an EV.

Help communities get off gas. Invest in renewable energy.

A new heat pump or electric vehicle are big ticket purchases for any household. If you aren’t ready to replace your furnace or vehicle, or already have purchased these items, what else can you do to get off gas and fight climate change? At CED Co-op we have one answer – invest in renewable energy technology such as solar and grow your money. We are creating opportunities for investment in solar power infrastructure across Ontario. Our solar sites are already contributing to a greener electricity grid by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating wealth for our community.

Our mission is to accelerate the adoption of solar power in Ontario. We believe that renewable energy should be accessible to everyone. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for business. We build projects that power progress.

We partner with organizations and communities who wish to transition to clean energy by investing capital in building and operating solar infrastructure at their locations. By partnering with us, you collaborate to share in the economic benefits and strengthen our combined impact in the community. Together, we can truly fulfill the potential of thinking globally and acting locally. There’s power in our community. The power to get off gas.

References

1. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy-efficiency/products/product-information/heating-equipment-for-residential-use/13740

2. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-526-s/2013002/part-partie1-eng.htm

3. https://www.worldometers.info/gas/gas-consumption-by-country/

4. https://www.factcheck.org/2018/09/how-potent-is-methane/

5. https://environmentaldefence.ca/report/canadas-methane-gas-problem/

6. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-and-data/data-and-analysis/energy-data-and-analysis/energy-facts/electricity-facts/20068

7. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy-efficiency/energy-star-canada/about/energy-star-announcements/publications/heating-and-cooling-heat-pump/6817

8. https://www.pembina.org/blog/gas-vs-electricity

9. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/16-001-m/2010012/part-partie1-eng.htm

10. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy-efficiency/transportation-alternative-fuels/personal-vehicles/choosing-right-vehicle/20998

11. https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/Global-LCA-passenger-cars-FS-EN-jul2021.pdf

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