By Shanna Killen, Consultant, and Ben Clark, Director, Green & Circular Economy
There’s a good chance you’ve heard about “green building retrofits,” but for those of us who don’t live and breathe this stuff every day, it may not be clear what they are and how they impact our climate targets.
Our Green and Circular Economy team spends a lot of time working with partners across Canada on green retrofits – in fact, a few months ago we published the Canadian Green Retrofit Economy Study, supported by the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), the Ontario Construction Secretariat, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).
This blog is the first in a series where we’ll break down the importance of green retrofits and how we can accelerate the green retrofit economy. Some context off the top:
- Canada is currently on a path to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
- Canada’s buildings currently account for 18% of national GHG emissions (including the electricity used for cooling, lighting, and appliances). By making our existing buildings green, we can take major strides towards achieving our climate targets.
- Transitioning existing buildings to net zero will rapidly generate demand for highly skilled green jobs in the process. As our study shows, Ontario and Quebec have the potential to generate the greatest number of employment opportunities through green retrofit activities. It is estimated that these provinces have the potential to contribute 644,000 and 505,000 jobs, respectively. This represents more than half of the total green jobs expected to be created nationally.
A more holistic understanding of the key drivers and barriers to implementing green retrofits will help us realize these benefits.
What Defines a Retrofit vs. a Green Retrofit?
Retrofit: This term is broadly used in the built environment to describe substantial physical changes made after a building is constructed. It is often used alongside other terms such as “refurbishment,” “conversion,” or “refit.” Aside from projects completed purely for aesthetic purposes, most retrofits are “green” to some extent as they bring systems up to code and result in greater building efficiency.
Green Retrofit: A green retrofit involves improving and updating a building’s systems with the goal of minimizing GHG emissions. Green retrofits typically fall into these three categories:
- Reducing/replacing fossil fuel use for space heating, mainly through electrification. This could include replacing an existing system with a low-ambient air-to-air or air-to-water heat pump system, supported by an electric resistance or high efficiency (HE) condensing gas boiler, if necessary (considering climate zones).
- Applying energy demand-reduction measures, such as upgrading to a full LED lighting system or improving a building’s envelope with better insulation and energy efficient windows and doors.
- Incorporating and/or installing on-site renewable energy systems. These systems can maximize on-site renewable energy generation through solar PV or hot water system installation, dependant on available roof area, utility regulations, and annual electrical load.
At city scale, retrofit activity can be aggregated into a portfolio of projects by building system and sub-system, and supported by sustainable financing and with a clearly defined set of goals and metrics.
What is Driving the Demand for Green Retrofits?
The main driver for decarbonizing Canada’s buildings is our national ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The following related policies and activities are expected to accelerate green retrofits:
- Carbon Tax: By 2030, the national carbon tax will begin to create more of a financial impact and is expected to shift decisions of building owners and managers towards greener opportunities.
- Low-Carbon Grids: The lower the GHG intensity of a grid, the better the business case for the uptake of retrofit technologies. For example, BC and Quebec rely on low-carbon hydroelectricity, which translates into a better environmental and financial case for electrifying heating and cooling systems.
- Electrification of Buildings: Reducing carbon intensity and driving the uptake of low-carbon retrofit technologies is a growing trend. Heat pumps are also widely incentivized through the form of grants and rebates offered by federal government and utilities across some provinces. For example, the Canada Greener Homes Grant offers grants of up to $5,000 for heat pumps and other green retrofit products (i.e. Energy STAR certifies windows and doors). BC Hydro also provides provincial incentives of up to $11,000 in rebates for switching away from a fossil fuel-based heating source to a heat pump.
What Tools and Solutions Will Accelerate Green Retrofits?
Delphi has engaged with stakeholders across Canada’s green building supply chain to better understand the barriers — and more importantly the solutions — that will help us drive the uptake of green retrofit technologies, policy solutions, and financing tools.
- Cost of green retrofit technologies and lack of available capital.
- Gaps in green retrofit policy and regulation, both provincially and nationally.
- Knowledge and skills gaps in the workforce as well as a limited understanding of the benefits of green retrofits for businesses.
- Limited supply chain and increasing costs.
- Providing financing tools that result in zero cost over the long term once incentives are factored in. The SOFIAC aggregator model ensures the capital cost of retrofits is shouldered by an aggregate of energy solution providers, while the building developer or owners benefit from energy savings.
- To close the gap between green retrofit building targets and policy it will be vital to create more transparency around building performance through energy labelling and disclosure for all building sales. This will enable better benchmarking and on building inventory.
- Education for homeowners and builders will help to build familiarity with terms, concepts, the business case for implementing retrofits, as well as financial incentives.
- Intelligent building technologies have matured, become more cost effective and accessible for installation across a variety of buildings and grid systems. On a macro scale, investing in a smart-grid system will ensure better energy use.
- Using retrofits to decarbonize Canada’s buildings will drive the job demand for electricians, contractors, and HVAC trades such as plumbers, gasfitters, steamfitters, pipefitters and air-conditioning mechanics. This provides an opportunity for industry, education and training organizations to advance the just transition by fostering a workforce of highly skilled trades workers who will help actualize retrofit project demand (see table below). Addressing the challenges around workforce demand for specific occupations and skillsets will encourage a comprehensive and targeted strategy to upskill, reskill and incentivize more workers to choose education and training in the trades.
Figure 1: Estimated occupation demand to 2050 (accelerated scenario)
Decarbonizing our buildings with green retrofits is an essential part of Canada’s net-zero puzzle. If you don’t believe us just yet, stay tuned for our next installment where we’ll explore strategies and tools that government and industry can use to accelerate and scale green retrofits.
Make sure to checkout our green retrofit resources here:
Curious about how a green and circular economy strategy can help you meet your organization’s net-zero goals? Contact Ben Clark, Director, Green & Circular Economy at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Shanna Killen, Consultant, at email@example.com.