The topic of climate change has been under the microscope for some time now. Over the last 20 years, there has been a collective global effort to move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner renewable energy systems. However, with the culmination of the COP26 Glasgow summit in November, the consensus from the summit was that more work needed to be done. The summit documented that the world is falling short of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. To keep on track with our goals of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and attaining net zero emissions by 2050, renewable energy sources will play a vital part in the fight against climate change.
Renewable energy sources
Currently, renewable energy sources provide about 18.9 per cent of Canada’s total primary energy supply, according to Statistics Canada. Moving water is the most important renewable energy source in Canada and provides 59.3 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation. The primary sources are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal and biomass. When it comes to residential hydronic heating, the most common energy source is solar thermal or heat pumps, according to Jeff Hunter, president of the Ontario Geothermal Association. These options are seen as cost-effective and environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional gas appliances. “With the elimination of combustion for space conditioning and domestic hot water processes, we can create hot water without combusting fossil fuels,” said Hunter.
Shifting the market
In total, 17 per cent of Canada’s emissions come from buildings, more specifically due to heating and cooling, according to the Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada’s (HRAI) report titled “Driving Ground-Source Heat Pump Adoption.” While emission rates have been fairly steady and the plan to reach net zero has seen an acceleration, it would make sense that renewable energy sourced technology would be the top industry choice. Yet, it remains in its infancy stage, reports Hunter. One of the biggest reasons for this is the cost of natural gas in many parts of the country. “Realistically, the majority of Canada, for space conditioning and water heating, is natural gas because it’s incredibly cheap. There needs to be a levelling of the playing field,” said Hunter. One way of achieving this could mean some kind of shift in the market. “The channel is the manufacturer to wholesaler to contractor to the consumer. The wholesale business has been really directed towards gas products.” This means that unless the market starts to signal a shift towards heat pumps, the market will continue down its current path, suggests Hunter.
“I would say heat pumps are essential to decarbonising homes and buildings,” said Martin Luymes, vice president of government and stakeholder relations at HRAI. To implement this shift, there needs to be an expansion of electrical grids to meet the heating demand on even the chilliest of Canadian nights. “With the skilled trades pushing for green sources for hot water and space heating, emphasizing on heat pumps and electric pumps, and the transportation market looking to go more electric, there’s going to be additional strains on the electric grid,” said Dave Hughes, technical advisor of code and standards at the Canadian Institute of Plumbing and Heating (CIPH). Within the electrical grid, it should be remembered that there are various kinds of electricity— “Everyone figures that electricity is a simple plugging into the wall, not realizing there’s green electricity with some places in Canada not having that option. Here in Alberta, our electricity is predominantly coal or natural gas.”
Something not yet highlighted in this article is the use of hydrogen cells in the HVAC industry. The adoption of hydrogen may be beneficial in eliminating natural gas and bridging the gap in the electrification process as “Hydrogen does not produce emissions in the same way as natural gas and this can create zero-carbon,” said Luymes. There are even available applications that could see the mixing of hydrogen within the current system, “Projects are being worked on right now with hydrogen, mixing hydrogen with natural gas or renewable natural gas,” said Hughes. There does need to be a careful balance when using hydrogen in these types of applications as it could cause larger climate impacts, especially when it comes to how the hydrogen is being used and what type. “It is technically feasible to use hydrogen as a fuel to replace natural gas and its an alternative to heat pumps,” explains Luymes.
A new study was released in December 2020 titled “Hydrogen Strategy for Canada: Seizing the Opportunities for Hydrogen,” which looked at ways to modernize Canada’s energy systems. The report was conducted by Zen and the Art of Clean Energy Solutions on behalf of the Government of Canada. “The Hydrogen Strategy for Canada lays out an ambitious framework for actions that will cement hydrogen as a tool to achieve our goal of net zero emissions by 2050 and position Canada as a global, industrial leader of clean renewable fuels,” said Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s former minister of natural resources. “This will involve switching from conventional gasoline, diesel, and natural gas to zero-emissions fuel sources, taking advantage of new regulatory environments, and embracing new technologies to give Canadians more choice of zero-emission alternatives.”
There are still technical challenges around introducing hydrogen as a blend, according to the report. An example is that some metal pipes can degrade when exposed to hydrogen over long periods. Since natural gas transmission pipelines are typically made of high-strength steels and operate at higher pressures, this makes them more susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement.
“While the allowable concentrations of hydrogen in natural gas pipeline networks remains an area of active research and evaluation, recent studies have concluded that transmission pipelines can accept hydrogen concentrations of between five per cent and 20 per cent (by volume) with minimal risk,” according to the study. “Hydrogen blending limits can be overcome by localizing portions of the natural gas infrastructure or end customers who can tolerate higher hydrogen concentrations, with the potential to have 100 per cent dedicated pipelines in some regions of Canada.” Several provinces, including Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec, have begun the process of developing pilot projects to better understand blending hydrogen into the natural gas grid.
On the electrification front of heating and cooling, there has been some progress in Canada. “We’re starting to see that electrification efforts are becoming local initiatives—there have been around 500 regions in Canada that declared a climate emergency,” reports Hunter. One such example is the City of Toronto’s TransformTO Net Zero Strategy, which is expected to accelerate its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 10 years. “When it comes to eliminating emissions from our buildings and houses, heat pumps or electrification make the most sense in those scenarios,” said Hunter.
According to HRAI’s report, a reasonably ambitious adoption rate of ground-source heat pumps (GSHP) could save Canadians between $49 billion and $148 billion relative to electrification through air-source heat pumps (ASHP) alone, which comes down to about $40,000 in savings per installed GSHP system. :