Getting off gas: A how-to guide to get fossil fuels out of your home

Seth Klein, brother of Naomi, has gotten his Vancouver house off fossil fuels.

This column is a little different from my usual fare. It’s more of a “how-to guide” to decarbonize one’s home. While my writing and public talks generally focus on how to press our governments into emergency mode, ironically, one of the followup questions I am most frequently asked is, “How do I swap my gas furnace for an electric heat pump, and who was your contractor?” So, this one’s for all you folks.

As we seek to confront the climate emergency, retrofitting existing homes and buildings figures centrally in a robust plan. In Canada, the fossil fuels — mainly “natural” gas — we combust in buildings account for about 12 per cent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions (split roughly evenly between residential and non-residential buildings). That doesn’t count the embedded carbon in building construction, the fossil fuels burned to produce electricity in some provinces, or the GHGs associated with extracting and producing the fossil fuels we directly burn in our buildings. In cities, GHGs from buildings generally account for more than half of local emissions.

Discussions about retrofitting our homes often focus on how to enhance energy efficiency — improving insulation, using programmable thermostats, sealing leaks, etc. But here’s the rub: while measures such as these can help reduce emissions and household costs, we can’t achieve carbon-zero as a society by efficiency improvements alone. The only way to get our buildings and homes to carbon-zero is to fuel-swap, meaning, to stop using and combusting fossil fuels in our structures. In particular, we need to stop using “natural” gas (which these days is mostly fracked methane gas) to heat our homes and water and to cook our food. Of all the actions households can take to act on the climate crisis, this shift is one of the most important. Effective now, we need all new buildings to refrain from tying into gas lines. And within the next few years, we need all existing buildings to switch from fossil fuel heat sources to renewable, which in most cases means electricity.

After a process that took about a year, my home is now off fossil fuels. It wasn’t simple or cheap. But it can be done. And in this piece, I share the steps of how my family did it. Some of what we did is specific to B.C., where we live, but much is applicable anywhere. In telling this tale, I’m not trying to virtue signal. Rather, I just want to offer some guidance because people want to know. One of the barriers to climate action is that many of us find it hard to imagine how our homes operate without fossil fuels. So here I offer you a picture of what that can look like.

And let me state from the outset that, without question, a truly successful climate plan requires collective action at the political/policy level (more on that below). Any plan that relies on individual households voluntarily doing what I spell out here will see us fry. Also, I own my home, which provides me with privileges, opportunities and obligations to act that do not exist for most renters. Ultimately, however, a comprehensive climate program does require that all our homes cease using fossil fuels. So this article walks you through how that can be done.

Read the full article at the National Observer.