Although I live in the middle of nowhere, in the woods of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, my house is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, Quebec. A few weeks ago I made the drive north to meet a few green builders from Quebec and to attend a green building conference called Ecohabitation 2014.
Montreal is a fun city where it’s easy to buy a decent baguette. The city also offers the chance to sample delicious food prepared by Quebecois born in Lebanon, Tunisia, Mexico, India, and many other countries.
I was invited to Montreal by Quebec’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency and Innovation, along with André Fauteux, the editor of a green building magazine called La Maison du 21è siècle. Shortly after I arrived, Fauteux graciously treated me to a meal at a Thai restaurant on Chemin de la CÃ´te-des-Neiges. Our conversation ranged widely. Since we’re both editors, we have a lot in common — except for the fact that Fauteux believes that electromagnetic frequencies emitted by smart meters can injure human health. (I’m awaiting more data on that topic.)
A Passivhaus that is close to net zero
That evening, I heard a presentation by Louis-Philippe Thibault, one of the architects of Quebec’s Novoclimat program. Novoclimat is a Quebec-based program based in part on Canada’s R-2000 program. Like the Energy Star Homes program in the U.S., Novoclimat encourages builders to implement above-code approaches to energy efficiency.
In the 15 years since the program was established in 1999, Novoclimat has certified over 21,000 new Quebec homes.
One of the builders I spoke to before Thibault’s presentation was Alain Hamel, owner of A et A Construction in Saguenay, Quebec. Hamel pays attention to building science developments, monitors green building websites in two languages, and is fond of quoting Alex Wilson. He recently finished building an award-winning single-family house on Lac Kenogami in Saguenay; the house meets LEED Platinum specifications as well as the Passivhaus standard. The 2,700-square-foot house has R-87 walls, R-150 attic insulation, and R-62 sub-slab insulation. The home’s 5.4-kW photovoltaic system helped it earn a HERS index of 6. (For more information on the Kenogami house, see The Kenogami House and Ecohome’s Kenogami House wins Home of the Year Award.)
During our conversation, Hamel informed me of a new challenge for Quebec builders: the Net Zero Heat Challenge. To win the contest, a cold-climate builder has to design and build a house that is heated only by passive solar heat and internal gains. Is it possible? Stay tuned.
HYDROELECTRICITY IN QUEBEC
Quebec generates more electricity than any other Canadian province, and almost all of it (97%) is generated by the province’s 59 hydroelectric plants. Several huge hydroelectric projects in the James Bay region of northern Quebec in the 1970s and 1980s were opposed by environmentalists, as well as by the indigenous Cree people whose traditional hunting and fishing areas were flooded by the dams.The province’s utility, Hydro-Québec, has a generating capacity of 47,013 megawatts. Retail rates for electricity in Quebec are among the lowest in North America, which is why Quebec citizens have the highest per-capita use of electricity in the world. Retail prices for residential electricity are so cheap — 5.32¢/kWh for the first 30 kWh used each day, with additional usage charged at a rate of 7.51¢/kWh — that many Quebec homes use electric-resistance baseboard units for space heat.Quebec handles its huge electricity surplus by exporting power to Ontario, New York, and Vermont. These electricity exports are valued at over $1 billion a year.According to the Financial Post, “Quebec has a big energy problem. … Explosive growth in shale gas output in the United States since 2008 and stagnant demand for power at home and abroad in the wake of the last recession has depressed prices and left the province awash in electricity. So much so in fact, that a government-mandated commission that studied Quebec’s energy situation recommended this week that the government consider putting on ice all new power production investments, including wind turbine developments and the last two phases of the $6.5-billion La Romaine hydroelectric project in the remote north. Quebec finds itself with an estimated surplus of more than 30 terawatt hours – enough to meet the annual electricity consumption of 45% of its households. … Almost out of nowhere came America’s shale revolution. New hydraulic fracturing techniques unlocked fields of natural gas. And because gas is used to produce a significant portion of electricity, particularly in the U.S. northeast, prices for both natural gas and electricity plummeted. At the same time, the financial crisis and subsequent recession severely cut demand from several major power customers.”
Urban agriculture and fish farming
The Ecohabitation 2014 conference was held at the University of Montreal on April 26. The nonprofit group that sponsored the conference, Ecohabitation, maintains two websites, one for each of Canada’s major languages. The English-language site is known as EcoHome.
One of the first presentations at the conference, “How can we transform our lifestyle?,” was given by Laure Waridel. After reporting a long list of environmental problems, Waridel said, “Oui, la planète est malade” — Yes, the planet is sick. But she told us that her worries are balanced by signs of hopeful citizen actions around the globe, and she encouraged the audience to visualize planetary healing and renewal.
Eric Duchemin, an associate professor at the Institute of Science and the Environment at the University of Quebec, discussed opportunities for urban agriculture. Crops can be grown on vegetated roofs, in community gardens, in narrow strips of land near sidewalks, and on balconies, Duchemin explained. These small areas can yield annual harvests that range from 2 to 14 kilograms of fruits and vegetables per square meter. Urban agriculture has many benefits, Duchemin noted, including improved food security.
Natachat Danis and Vincent Leblanc gave a presentation on urban greenhouses and aquaponics (an agricultural system that marries aquaculture with hydroponics). Aquaponics principles are similar in some respects to principles espoused in the early 1970s by John Todd of the New Alchemy Institute.
Cheap energy leaves green builders feeling beleaguered
The conference provided evidence of a strong green building movement in Quebec. The green builders I spoke with nevertheless showed signs of feeling beleaguered. Green building in Quebec fails to get much traction, I was told, because the province has such cheap energy. Quebec’s large hydroelectric projects produce far more electricity than the province can consume; these large surpluses of hydroelectricity are one reason why Hydro-Quebec, the local electric utility, isn’t very interested in expanding incentives for energy-efficiency improvements.
Of course, similar issues affect green building initiatives in the U.S. The recent boom in natural gas development and oil drilling in the U.S. has kept energy prices low — perhaps not as low as they are in Quebec, but low enough to affect utilities’ investments in renewable energy projects.
Only time will tell whether today’s low energy prices are the new normal or a historical anomaly.
[Author’s postscript: André Fauteux’s report on my visit appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of his magazine, La Maison du 21è siècle. Here is a link to his article: “Comment bÃ¢tir vert sans se ruiner.”]
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “WUFI Is Driving Me Crazy.”