Research uncovers a game-changing opportunity to replace gas furnaces and water heaters with clean electric equipment.
A new report from OPEN Technologies and Vancity identifies the factors that are holding back the shift from natural gas home space and water heating and toward clean alternatives such as electric heat pumps, and points to opportunities that governments and retrofit program designers can leverage to quickly decarbonize British Columbia’s housing stock.
The new report—“Stuck: Why home electrification is lagging in British Columbia and what must be done to break the deadlock on residential carbon retrofits”—summarizes the findings of a trio of original public-opinion studies. Vancouver-based software company OPEN Technologies, in partnership with Vancity, commissioned the research to better understand the factors that inform homeowner decisions to upgrade or replace their space and water heating equipment, including home age and characteristics, and the factors that create barriers to starting or finishing retrofits.
“To address the climate challenge, governments need to incentivize homeowners to replace their natural-gas furnaces and hot water heaters with zero-emissions electric solutions,” said Donovan Woollard, CEO of OPEN Technologies. “Our research uncovered the challenges and conditions that often derail even the most dogged efforts to shift away from the fossil-fuel status quo—and points to successes and leverage points to build upon.”
The research confirms that most homeowners only replace their gas furnace when it fails and, in the scramble to get heat flowing again, they almost always replace it with another one. This like-for-like swap effectively locks in another generation of carbon emissions. Almost two thirds of the region’s furnaces and boilers will reach the end of their service life between today and 2030, representing a massive opportunity for the province to electrify these homes and hit its climate targets.
The research arrives as the provincial government prepares to open up consultations on proposed new regulations that would allow local governments to regulate carbon pollution from homes and other buildings. To date, governments have largely relied on rebates, educational awareness campaigns, and other voluntary approaches to drive residential carbon retrofits.
“As part of our commitment to building a clean and fair world, Vancity is doing everything it can to make climate action accessible and affordable for everyone,” said Andrea Harris, VP Impact Strategy at Vancity. “This research provides clear direction on how to break down barriers for homeowners seeking to improve the energy efficiency and comfort of their homes.”
The report ultimately concludes that residential carbon retrofits are a structural challenge requiring new regulation and a strong market signal to round out the current overwhelmingly rebate- and education-focused approach.
The report is available here.
Backgrounder: Key Facts
Stuck: Why home electrification is lagging in British Columbia and what must be done to break the deadlock on residential carbon retrofits
Who published this report?
● OPEN Technologies, in partnership with Vancity, commissioned the research and compiled findings in collaboration with qualitative market researchers Circular Citizen and statistician Majid Khoury.
● OPEN is a software company helping the people that shape our cities to make pro-climate decisions with confidence. Vancity works to deliver on its vision for a transformed economy that protects the earth and guarantees equity for all. Canada’s largest credit union is committed to support its members and communities through the transition to a clean and fair economy.
What is the report about?
● This report sheds light on the factors that enable or discourage British Columbia homeowners that seek to transition away from natural gas-fired space and water heating in favour of clean electric alternatives, and—as a result—what can, and must, be done to decarbonize the province’s ground-oriented housing.
What’s the problem?
● Too many British Columbia homes are producing too much carbon pollution. To meet the provincial, regional, and local climate targets for 2030 and 2050 we must decarbonize our homes. And that means quickly replacing the gas furnaces, boilers, and water heaters that currently dominate the landscape with all-electric alternatives, and ensuring that new homes are electrified from the start.
● Across the province, hundreds of thousands of natural gas furnaces and water heaters are currently operating, but our research concludes that homeowners are replacing just four to five per cent of them each year.
● In the vast majority of those cases, new gas equipment replaces old gas equipment, which locks in another generation of fossil fuel combustion.
● The research reveals that almost two thirds of gas-powered home heating equipment is up for replacement by 2030. This represents either a huge electrification opportunity or a massive blow, should those homeowners choose to go with gas again and lock in another generation of carbon emissions.
What did you learn?
● When it comes to home electrification, the central finding of the research is that carbon retrofitting—specifically, electrifying—a home is challenging and requires planning, but most homeowners are reactive rather than proactive.
● Approximately 60 per cent of heating equipment replacements occur following a furnace or boiler failure, or when a homeowner comes to believe that burn-out is imminent. This tends to result in quick, like-for-like installations that lock in fossil fuel combustion for another generation.
● Even with existing supports, residential carbon retrofits are inherently complicated and expensive projects. Our research shows that homeowners have little motivation to take them on, and many barriers standing in their way.
What needs to happen?
● To halve buildings-based emissions by 2030, the province needs to electrify the primary space and water heating systems of at least five per cent of all British Columbia households (the equivalent of seven per cent of today’s existing, gas-burning homes) each year, while also taking steps to reduce emissions from kitchen appliances and secondary heating systems and ensuring that all newly built homes run zero-emissions heating and hot water systems.
● The report calls upon policy makers, program designers, and others to transform the home energy equipment marketplace in a way that is beneficial for homeowners, industry participants, and our shared climate imperatives.
● Policy makers must quickly phase out gas-primary space and water heating systems. To reach the 2030 targets, this “simply” requires replacing the 61 per cent of gas-fired furnaces and 68 per cent of gas-fired boilers that are already approaching the end of their service life.
● Residential carbon retrofits require a multi-layered policy response, including new regulation, to send a strong signal to the market and supplement the current voluntary-focused approach.
● This should include a clear signal from the provincial government that residential natural gas will eventually be phased out. It requires political courage and a funding commitment many orders of magnitude larger than current allocations.
What will happen if action is not taken?
● In the absence of clear and aggressive new regulation, coupled with strategic and major program support for the industry transition, residential carbon retrofits will continue to stumble along as exceptions to the rule, and the province will not likely meet its climate targets.
● The deck is presently stacked against even the most motivated of British Columbia homeowners, and a significant regulatory intervention is required to unleash carbon retrofits at the needed scope, scale, and speed.
Where can I find the report?
● The report is at opentech.eco/stuck