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City councillors recommend no more natural gas in home-building in Nanaimo

Council still needs to approve recommendation, regulation could come into effect in 2024
A recommendation from city staff to eliminate fossil fuels as energy sources for new buildings after July 2024 gained traction with council at a governance and priorities committee meeting in late July. (News Bulletin file photo)

In a move to cut greenhouse gas emissions, city councillors voted to recommend eliminating fossil fuels as an energy source for new homes in Nanaimo.

The recommendation, passed unanimously at a governance and priorities committee meeting July 26, followed a staff recommendation to accelerate the provincial zero carbon step code schedule, which sets emissions targets and timelines. Staff recommended new construction of single- and multi-family residential structures built after July 1, 2024, meet zero carbon performance Level 4, which means those buildings wouldn’t be constructed to burn carbon-emitting fossil fuels such as natural gas, and would rely primarily on electricity for heating and cooling interior spaces and water.

Commercial and institutional buildings such as restaurants, hospitals and recreation centres are currently not regulated under the zero carbon step code.

Buildings accounted for 31 per cent, or about 500,000 tonnes, of Nanaimo’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, according to city figures. Achieving zero carbon performance Level 4 in 2024 – six years ahead of the province’s 2030 target date – is seen as a step toward Nanaimo’s effort to lower community-wide emissions by 50 per cent to 58 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030 and from 94-107 per cent below 2010 levels by 2050.

“The city has a very ambitious climate target,” said Ting Pan, city manager of sustainability. “We’re trying to cut our emissions by more than half by 2030, in less than seven years.”

Pan said the city’s rapid growth makes it difficult to cut emissions if new construction adds emission sources faster than they can be removed from existing building stock, but a greater proportion of buildings are curbing emissions, due largely to city building bylaws and incentives to lower carbon output and incorporate low-emission energy sources into new buildings. Large buildings, she said, now mostly use electricity for space and hot water heating, but small structures, such as new single-family homes, still include natural gas in their energy supply mix.

Representatives from B.C. Hydro, Westmark Construction and Bernhardt Contracting were positive about the recommendation, but those from Fortis B.C. and the Canadian Home Builders Association were less than enthusiastic about accelerating the schedule.

Carmen LeBlanc, Fortis B.C. community and Indigenous relations manager, said the company supports the energy efficiency requirements of the step codes, but Fortis was not part of the consultation process with the city, did not support accelerating the code target and advocated for a gradual adoption of the zero carbon step code.

“Fortis B.C. shares the same vision as the City of Nanaimo for a clean, affordable and resilient energy future and we actively support the efforts to reach B.C. and the City of Nanaimo’s climate housing objectives, but the proposal presented to council today does not support that vision and will have significant housing and affordability implications for residents and businesses in Nanaimo,” LeBlanc said.

Kerriann Coady, chief executive officer for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association’s Vancouver Island chapter, said the organization wants more time before the zero carbon performance Level 4 is implemented.

“This will allow the opportunity for a predictable transition to allow for renewable energy sources to get online,” Coady said.

She also shared concerns expressed by association members that eliminating energy sources will remove choice in the market and result in potentially less affordable home operation costs that need to be controlled given already high home rental and purchase prices.

READ ALSO: City of Nanaimo curious about its authority to limit new natural gas hookups

Councillors, in turn, expressed why they think it’s time to cut fossil fuel energy sources.

Coun. Ben Geselbracht said simply making homes more energy efficient won’t meet emission-reduction goals and that a fuel switch is coming anyway, but acknowledged accelerating the code schedule will not be a “silver bullet” fix, just one piece of a much larger puzzle in battling climate change.

“The restrictions are just going to get tighter as the province implements more regulations on having zero carbon and so, if you put a natural gas system in your home now, you could be looking at a costly retrofit down the road and it’s just not worth it,” Geselbracht said.

Coun. Tyler Brown said he appreciates the approach of allowing time for some elements of the building industry to catch up with Nanaimo’s ambitious and accelerated emission-reduction goals.

“There is a reality there and I think the recommendations that staff have put forward clearly align with where we need to go and the vision to get there while also being pragmatic with respect to that little bit of work that needs to be done,” he said.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog supported the recommendation, but reserved the right to change his mind after councillors who weren’t present at the meeting add their opinions to the debate. He expressed concern over shifting potentially higher construction costs for new buildings onto the shoulders of future renters and home buyers.

“The wisest words this morning came from someone who’s been a political pain in my posterior through several elections, my old friend Brunie Brunie, and … she said simply, quote, ‘We need to learn to consume less,’” Krog said.

Coun. Janice Perrino, like the mayor, supported the motion, but wants to hear from the rest of council, and she also expressed concern about the potential burden on the construction industry.

“That concerns me because we need to get people into homes and the faster we build homes the more people have a safe place to live and that is, of course, our first priority at this table,” Perrino said. “Having said that, I do believe this is an important move and I will be voting in favour.”

Coun. Hilary Eastmure said the primary culprit behind climate change is inaction and voting to accelerate the code timeline is an opportunity to act now.

“Today I think we really heard from energy providers, engineers, builders, members of the community, that this is not only feasible, but highly desirable in our community…” she said. “As far as shifting the cost onto another consumer or purchaser down the road, the alternative is shifting an unlivable planet onto future generations, so I think think that’s a no-brainer.”

The recommendation passed unanimously with councillors Erin Hemmens, Ian Thorpe and Sheryl Armstrong absent.

RELATED: City of Nanaimo draft plan calls for B.C.-wide moratorium on new natural gas connections

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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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