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Musings of an Energy Nerd

A Green Building Conference in Montreal

Ecohabitation 2014 provided a chance for green builders in Quebec to get together and share their knowledge

Dominique Boudreau explained the importance of a good thermal envelope at the Ecohabitation conference in Montreal. [Photo credit: Larissa Hallis, Ecohabitation]
Image Credit: Larissa Hallis, Ecohabitation

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 Côte-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…

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  1. wjrobinson | | #1

    Niagara Mohawk is our
    Niagara Mohawk (National Grid) is our provider of electricity. This winter our costs doubled or may have tripled. Most of us didn't even know they had the right to float the cost of electric daily. We know now.

    So how the heck are we paying 25 cents a KWH this winter when Quebec power has excess they need to sell????????????????????????????


    Quebec, send your excess power to all of Upstate New York not just the border counties.

  2. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #2

    high R-values
    "The 2,700-square-foot house has R-87 walls, R-150 attic insulation, and R-62 sub-slab insulation."

    Martin: What materials did they use to attain such high R values? Is it even conceivable that it was cost-effective?

  3. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    Grid infrastructures matter
    AJ: The spike in NY electricity prices shows what happens when there isn't sufficient gas grid capacity to handle the combined powerplant + space heating loads. But that's not to say the transmission line capacity from Quebec into NY or NE is sufficient to carry the full capacity during power peaks either.

    Which is why distributed production makes more sense than the large powerplant + high capacity grid model. Where gas is cheap & plentiful you get more out of the gas + power grid infrastructure using the gas in distributed micro-cogenerators than you do burning it in gas furnaces or large combined cycle gas powerplants. As more people in NY/NE opt for heat pumps as space heating solutions, wintertime peaks outstripping grid capacities will become more likely. But promoting cogeneration will do more to ease the gas & elecricity grid congestion/capacity problems than paying for gas grid or electrical grid capacity. Now that the state of NY has thrown open the doors on re-structuring utility regulations, this sort of solution to grid problems may become more likely. (It remains to be seen- since we are only a couple of weeks into the commenting period, and the new regulatory environment has yet to be hammered out.)

    Quebec's overabundance problem is the product of a top-down regulatory environment that promoted massive generating capacity in the absence of clear market growth. This is exactly the type of thing that killed the finances of the US nuclear power industry back in the early 1980s, with construction bond defaults on a large number of nuclear projects being built without even a hint of a profitable market for that power. With more transmission line infrastructure more cheap power could be exported to the US, but with the rapid approach of cheap PV and flat to falling demand for power in the northeastern US, it's not clear that the transmission capacity will be built before it becomes unnecessary, or if investment in that capacity would be prudent. As NY allows more forms of demand response to participate in capacity markets that capacity may never be needed, even ignoring the PV boom, and the problems that drove the recent price spikes will evaporate.

    The view from 2 years ago will begin to look pretty silly in some respects: I simply don't believe either of the projections for demand growth in figure 11 will come to pass, especially if the retail residential rates stay in the 25 cent range- a price point at which rooftop PV even at last year's installed costs is a super-bargain, as is almost every form of efficiency upgrade.

  4. alricb | | #5

    The Kénogami House
    According to the linked web site, 2x6 walls with rock wool in the bays + lots of foam on the outside. It must have been fairly expensive, but it's a very nice house with a lake view.

    I used to live in Côte-des-Neiges; this post made me a little nostalgic for that time.

  5. alricb | | #6

    Another problem with exports
    Another problem with exports is that it's mostly done in the summer, because during the winter we have huge electricity consumption peaks thanks to all those baseboard heaters (which Hydro-Québec used to promote fairly heavily, to create demand for its electricity), so we can't export much.

    Better insulated homes have had a positive impact, and residential accounts for a much smaller portion of the energy consumption than it used to. In fact, reducing the demand by commercial buildings would give more benefits, because right now they tend to be very inefficient (and low energy prices aren't helping).

  6. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #7

    Now that they exist (response to Alexandre Richer )
    ... cold climate mini-split heat pumps installed in houses heated with resistance electricity could potentially free up a lot of wintertime peak-capacity (even in Quebec.) When the large hydro projects were over-built in the Pacific Northwest between 1940-1960 electric heating was heavily promoted, but now that the population and regional load has caught up to the peak loads there efficiency measures have been seen as a major part of the path forward.

    A consortium of regional utility companies called the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA: ) was formed to be able to test and monitor different ways of achieving efficiency gains for both average & peak load reduction across their regional grid. One of those efforts over the past 7-8 years has to document the effectiveness of retrofitting mini-split heat for reducing both peak & average loads. ( The 2-page version lives here: They also have several detailed documents in the 100s of pages discussing different aspects, including in-situ and bench tested efficiency measurements. )

    While the climate there is considerably milder in winter than Quebec, and their region wide average coefficient of performance (COP) is about 3.3-3.5 the state of the art on ductless mini-splits is that the better ones will operate at a coefficient of performance of about 2 even at -25C outdoor temperatures, which is a relevant temperature for Quebec. Since a large fraction of the heat load of a house can be met using just half the power, it is a more cost-effective and immediate upgrade than doubling the thermal performance of those houses.

    But mini-splits would also lower the average amount of power used, which does not solve the excess capacity and marketing problem for Hydro Quebec, only aggravates it.

  7. jinmtvt | | #8

    We can't drop the current energy efficiency crusade just because our Hydro-QC is having problems selling its over production.

    I still do not understand why there have not been more efforts from both parties into selling our energy further into usa down to NY city or such ..
    Using natural gaz for electricity production is greener than solar/gravity hydro-power???

    My RLS2H made me save alot of energy this winter compared to last year, even i should have spent alot more because it was an endless loop of -25c ~ 15c from november to february .
    Worst possible condition for a good COP to add to it.

  8. alricb | | #9

    I'm fairly excited about
    I'm fairly excited about minisplits with a good COP at low temperatures, since they might replace my parents' wood stove when it will become too much hassle for them. It won't cover all of their heating needs, but they already have baseboards that would run as an auxiliary system.

  9. jinmtvt | | #10

    Do not underestimate mini splits as far as total heat output,
    if sized correclty, it should cover a regular house needs down ~ 25c,
    if not just install multiple units.

  10. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #11

    Politics gets involved (reponse to Jin Kazama #8)
    New York has a lot of shale gas reserves in both the Utica & Marcellus shale formations. This (and others) have lowered the price of natural gas by quite a bit, which has led to more combined cycle gas plants being built as older power generators retire. It's not as green as buying existing hydro from across the border, but it has a lot of political pull. Yes, there was a (temporary) spike in gas pricing during this winter's cold snaps when pipeline capacities were constrained, but there are more/better/cheaper ways to deal with it than borrowing huge amounts of remote power via (also constrained) power transmission lines- this is a solvable problem without throwing money at more pipeline or transmission line capacity. The cheaper easier solutions will need changes in the utility regulatory framwork though.

    But that's happening: The lid is being blown off the utility regulations for a complete make-over in NY. If distributed storage on customer's side of the meter is allowed to be used for grid-stability and peak load sourcing it will become very economically viable for homes/businesses/buildings to all have local storage, as well as on-site generation (either co-generators, PV, even wind in some location), all of which eases those constraints, but using the ratepayer's (not the utilty's) capital resources. It's a very hot topic of discussion amongst policy wonks this week:

  11. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #12

    Whenever urban food production is brought up I remember the remarkable fact that the dense metropolis of Paris was a net exporter of produce up to 1850.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Stephen Sheehy (Comment #2)
    Q. "Is it even conceivable that it [thick insulation with very high R-values] was cost-effective?"

    A. The Kenogami house is a Passivhaus in a very cold climate. In a cold climate, very thick insulation is needed in order to meet the 15 kWh/m2*year goal that the Passivhaus standard requires. You are right to wonder whether the cost of this very thick insulation is a good investment. Traditional economic analysis suggests that it isn't.

    For more information in this issue, see Can Foam Insulation Be Too Thick?

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Malcolm Taylor (Comment #12)
    You wrote, "The dense metropolis of Paris was a net exporter of produce up to 1850."

    I'm visited many countries where intense urban and suburban agriculture are practiced. In most cases, the one common thread in these countries is that people are poor and hungry. When food is scarce, people find ways to grow food in nooks and crannies to feed their families. This work is often labor-intensive.

    When food is cheap, this type of urban agriculture is hardly worth the investment of time, unless it's a hobby or unless an urban dweller really wants fresh basil leaves near the kitchen.

    I often look at the median strips on divided highways, or roadside weeds in the U.S., and think that these areas would be grazed in the Middle East or India. In much of Asia, it's common to see young boys or girls (kids who have no opportunity to go to school) watching over a couple of cows, sheep, or goats all day, walking the roadsides.

  14. Mike Reynolds | | #15

    comment # 5 - is it cost effective?
    Whether or not it's cost effective depends on the person and how you measure that. A lot of people think in terms of an 8-10 year payback period, but you have to realize that this house is designed to see at least a 100 year life cycle.
    The Kenogami house has some pretty fancy gizmos, but not counting those, owner Alain Hamel has estimated the additional costs for such extreme insulation to be about $25-30,000. When you get to that level of thermal performance, you reduce the money spent on heat distribution systems, so that 'perceived' investment effectively drops. You may save 15k on a furnace and duct work, installing instead one or two centrally located baseboards that get very little use. But call it $20,000 additional for argument sake - put that 20K on a 25 year mortgage and it is comparable annually to what you would have paid for heat. So the overhead can be about the same as a code house, possibly even less. And when your mortgage is paid, you have pretty much free heat for the rest of your life.
    With an uncertain future in terms of cheap and reliable energy, that sort of security is priceless to some. Case in point - last Christmas was extremely cold, and 10's of thousands in Toronto were forced from their homes for lack of power and heat. At the same time much further north, with no heat on, Alain had to open a window.
    In order to make this cost effective, it is essential to design for maximum passive heat gain. In this case, 91% of windows face south and include natural and mechanical shading for summer. Hyper-insulating a house but building it in the shade or pointing your windows the wrong way, yeah, that could be a big waste of money.
    We at realize that some prominent building scientists advocate for stopping at half these levels. We believe that in doing so, you would spend much more over the service life of a building, and have expensive heat distribution systems that keep you dependent on the grid to survive, and break down at the worst times.
    So cost effectiveness changes when you look at it over a longer period and with a broader scope, and start thinking about heat security as we move into what will probably be an interesting century.

  15. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Mike Reynolds
    You have provided the standard Passivhaus defense of these very high R-values, and I understand the argument. However, when it comes to actual calculations, I disagree with your math.

    Every project is different, and costs vary. But most Passivhaus arguments in favor of very high R-values for cold climates make the argument work by underestimating construction costs and overestimating future energy price inflation. Builders I trust, including Paul Eldrenkamp and Carter Scott in Massachusetts, just can't make the math work for R-87 walls, R-150 attic insulation, and R-62 sub-slab insulation.

    However, I have no doubt that the Kenogami house is comfortable. Moreover, the home's ability to remain comfortable during power outages is valuable. But the same result can be achieved at lower cost by installing a wood stove.

  16. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #17

    When estimating the lifespan of houses, the builder's intentions really don't have much to do with how long they will be continue to function, and the vast majority of the factors that determine how long they will last do not concern the way on which they were built, but rather things like demographics, changes in their surroundings and how they work with changing lifestyles. To decide that the house will last 100 years and use that as a basis for calculating paybacks simply doesn't make sense.
    The second problem with a general evaluation of the insulation levels is that it ignores the diminishing returns on increasing the R values of the envelope. While the initial increase over conventional construction may be easily justified, the case for the last say 10 or 15 R increase on a house like this has an almost impossibly long payback period for very little improvement in its performance.

  17. ahamel | | #18

    Another point of view... From the owner

    Response to Martin and Malcolm on Kenogami House
    For sure where you guys are that level of insulation is insane, and we realize that it is borderline up here. My house is an experiment in progress, to see if it is possible to stay warm with only the sun, and it's not done yet. We are adding heat storage techniques, and only after a full year of operation will we really know how well it performs.
    And of course we understand it resembles the Passivhaus defense, but a big difference is that they will demand 15kwh per m2 even in the shade, or with all your windows facing north, something we agree would make no sense. And the levels of insulation we installed were partly due to the fact that we were originally pursuing Passivhaus certification, which we later abandoned.
    Malcolm - I would respectfully disagree with your evaluation - as Mike mentioned above, 'cost effective' is really quite personal. This is about building for long term resilience in all aspects, not for assured market value in houses that frequently change hands.
    Some people buy health insurance, life insurance and fire insurance, your evaluation of cost effective could be applied to those as well. If you don't get sick or your house didn't burn down then it could be argued that you wasted money. Aiming for this level of passive gain and retention is a form of heat insurance. I may need it, and I may not. But when I pass on, my kids will have access to a house they can live in the rest of their lives, or at least a valuable asset to sell.
    And yes Martin, it can be done with a woodstove (I do have one of those as well). But there are a range of predictions from climate scientists for the future, and they range from bad to really bad. There are a lot of people building a lot of houses right now, and bit extra in insulation now could mean a lot of trees that don't get burned over the next century. There are many strategies people employ for long term security and resilience, we believe this one needed to be tried.

  18. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Response to Alain Hamel
    It's your house, and you built it exactly the way you want. I salute you. It is an example, and, as you point out, it "needs to be tried."

    Without houses like yours as examples, we wouldn't know what is possible. We won't know what it costs to aim for a very high standard unless a few people build a few houses, and keeps account of their costs.

  19. Mike Reynolds | | #20

    Martin and Malcolm - On the Kenogami House
    We love that you posted this story Martin, and that it started a dialogue and raised eyebrows, thanks! This is an experiment in progress and we need to hear the people's doubts.
    It is certainly possible that building costs can be underestimated, that's a fair point. But it is also possible that savings are as well. One example - in order to have warm feet, in my region of Canada (Ottawa) people are generally content to spend $1,000 insulating under a slab then spend $10,000 in radiant tubing and infrastructure, money every month to operate it, and periodic replacement of moving parts over the long term.
    Where you to employ a philosophy of heat retention rather than heat generation, installing instead $4,000 in insulation under a slab with no radiant heat may keep your floor at a reasonable temperature when you hit the point where it assumes the temperature of the ambient air. Reduce the heat loss, reduce the heat you need to add, so a couple of baseboard heaters might suffice. That could amount to half the construction cost to keep a floor warm, then lower monthly costs and virtually no maintenance in the future.
    Alain is on rock (a heavy conductor) and in a harsh climate, so we believe his R64 slab can be cut in half most of the time to the same effect. This is to say, that the cost of installing, operating, maintaining and replacing large heat generation systems over the life cycle of a house shouldn't be ignored either.

  20. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #21

    Response to Mike Reynolds
    You don't have to convince me that hydronic in-floor heating systems are usually a waste of money in a green home. I wrote about the topic here: All About Radiant Floors.

    I also agree that the best approach for a green builder is to specify a very well insulated envelope that is as airtight as possible. Investments in a better envelope make a lot more sense than investments in complicated heating equipment.

    That said, there are diminishing returns from investments in insulation. John Straube's calculations show that it's hard to justify more than R-25 under a slab on grade foundation. This is much more than most people install. It's enough to keep the slab warm and comfortable, and it's also enough to allow the homeowner to install a very small, simple heating system.

    Living lightly on the planet means conserving resources -- including conserving building materials.

  21. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #22

    I was arguing in the abstract about passive House insulation levels, payback and longevity. I think this a fantastic house on all sorts of levels and can see why you enjoy living in it.

  22. maisonsaine | | #23

    Information on smart meters
    Thanks again for your Montreal talk on affordable solar homes and your great coverage of the Ecohabitation conference which encouraged stimulating exchanges on passive homes. Alain Hamel told me he gave up on the passive house certification which he found to be a waste of time and money.

    As for smart meters, here's briefly my take on the issue. I've been regularly interviewing experts on the health effects of electromagnetic fields since 1990.

    Smart meters can be a big problem for people who have already developed full blown electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) and for people overexposed to microwaves from antennas and wireless devices and who spend several hours a day close to one or several meters. (Absence of symptoms doesn't mean your neurological, immune and other body systems aren't reacting to this chronic stress and aren't about to overload.)

    While microwave emissions from smart meters are weaker than those from cordless phones and Wi-Fi, they emit sharp bursts of radiation every 30 seconds on average and like all electronic devices they also generate noxious interference (high frequency transients or so-called dirty electricity) which travels on home wiring. Smart meters can be the drop that makes the bucket overflow and triggers symptoms of EHS such as headaches, weakness, sleep disturbance, emotional instability, dizziness, memory impairment, fatigue, and heart palpitation (Sadchikova, 1960). The military has been aware of EHS complaints in their personnel since the late 19th century, but little research was published before the late 1950s when it was labelled ‘Radio Wave Sickness'. One of the best scientific articles on this controversial topic is “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Fact or fiction?”, by two Alberta professors of medicine. EHS is also called Microwave Syndrome and Parisian oncologist Dominique Belpomme has coined the term Electromagnetic Field Intolerance. He treats the largest European cohort of (more than 500) EHS patients. He has developed a new diagnostic technique, with brain scans, blood and urine tests, showing these people have clear signs of cerebral injury. (See the English pages of his Powerpoint presentation.)

    Not a single study has yet been published on the health impacts of smart meters, but the first one which is ongoing raises concern. Australian physician Frederica Lamech has documented the cases of 92 of her patients suffering from EHS symptoms which appeared after their smart meter was installed. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine last year published an article concluding it considers her evidece is irrefutable: Wireless Smart Meter Case Studies.

    The Austrian Medical Association also advises against installing wireless meters. I recommend you read the Austrian Medical Association Guideline for the Diagnosis and Treatment of EMF related health problems and illnesses.

    Finally, for a detailed explanation, read Smart Meters, Correction the Gross Misinformation, written by Harvard-trained Dr. David O. Carpenter, founder and dean of the Albany University School of Public Health. I asked him to write it and about 50 international EMF experts endorsed it.

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