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Surrey housing complex becomes model for energy efficiency

with 16 comments

Vancouver Sun

The province took over some townhouses from the feds (CHMC) which had been gravely neglected.

The foundations were leaking, basements were flooding, windows and walls were drafty, heating systems were aging, roofs needed replacing and the building envelopes needed to be sealed.

Instead of pulling it down and selling the site for private development, as they did with Little Mountain, they decided to renovate. At the same time they upgraded the buildings’ energy efficiency with heat pumps and solar panels.

Of course the first question ought to be what on earth is wrong with CHMC that they let the property get into this state in the first place? How long had it been like that and what impact did that have on the tenants?

features include better perimeter drainage, insulation and building envelope upgrades, as well as solar electricity panels on the roofs of 11 of 28 townhouse blocks.

The solar panels have a rated electricity generating capacity 139 kilowatt hours — and are expected to provide enough power to replace 10 per cent of what the complex would otherwise pull off the BC Hydro grid.

Why less than half the buidlings and why only 10%? At a guess I would say its probably something to do with the orientation of the roofs. But that does seem to me to be a remarkably modest target. There is also absolutely no information about how much all this cost and what the pay back of the energy efficiency measures is supposed to be.

It is important that this sort of thing is done. In general, energy efficiency is usually more cost effective than adding new generating capacity. New solar panels are a bit of a side issue for us, for we do not need to get any power from carbon based fuels – we just choose to, so that the generators can make money selling peak power at high profit margins to California. Frankly, using existing hydro is about as zero emission as one can get. Making new solar panels not being carbon free.

But for many homes in this province, and especially in this region, since they are not in the public sector and thus do not have the government’s deep pockets to delve into, things like up front costs and payback are very significant figures. Many town homes are either condominiums (strata title) or co-ops. There are a lot that are of a similar age: built when hydro was a cheap source of heat, and insulation was minimal. Many still have single pane windows, with no thermal breaks in the frame. Lots of other condos, of course, have had – or still have – other issues which are being expensively dealt with at the owners’ cost with little or no government help.

Could you persuade a strata council to set up a new levy on all the residents to pay for a program of energy efficiency retrofits which would pay back through lower energy bills? Even with the new carbon tax, I would regard that as being a very difficult sell. But I also do not see this government actually doing very much. A “role model for the province’s Green Building Code” is not actually going to do very much at all to help existing home owners or tenants – much less reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Nice little summer story – gives the minister a bit of positive media that the BC Liberals desperately need, but not actually very useful at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Posted in energy, housing

Tagged with ,

16 Responses

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  1. You asked why 10% for the photovoltaic (PV) panels.

    Here in BC we have some of the cheapest electricity in the world so installing any amount of PV is relatively expensive. So installing 100% capacity would have greatly increased the cost of the upgrades.

    I believe 10% was chosen because about 10-15% of the electric power we consume here in BC comes from fossil fuel sources. So by offsetting that 10% they can make the claim that there electricity is 100% carbon neutral.


    July 20, 2010 at 3:56 pm

  2. So, like I said, it is not economically worthwhile and is a way to “make a claim” not make a real difference. There is so much that has to be done to make this province “the best place on earth” – but spin (or “optics”) is, as usual, all that attracts our government.

    Stephen Rees

    July 20, 2010 at 4:07 pm

  3. Check out this website:

    This is an initiative to have mandatory home energy labelling at the time of sale. Such a change would quickly help condo owners get motivated to upgrade their condo’s or home rating before it went up for sale.


    July 20, 2010 at 5:44 pm

  4. Getting condo owners motivated is one thing. Getting strata councils to move on the issues needed to get the home upgraded is something else!

    Stephen Rees

    July 20, 2010 at 6:30 pm

  5. Getting condo owners is not as easy as you think, Stephen! for about 3 years a couple of board members (enter my name here) have proposed that windows and patio doors be replaced by energy efficient ones, only to be voted down in flames at each AGM. Redoing the entrance lobby (same cost as the windows and doors) was voted at once the first time it was presented as, in the words of one owner, “we all see the lobby but don’t see how efficient windows are”. Many condo owners are also living on the thin edge, financially, what with mortgages in Metro Vancouver.

    Showing a prospective buyer an energy audit of a home and utilities bills, along with other audits (no dangerous materials, no building construction deficiencies etc. etc.) has been compulsory in many European countries for a few years now. By 2012 all new homes will have to use a minimum of energy. Old homes will have to be retrofitted too but it will take time.. European governments are helping home owners this is good business for small companies.

    Red frog

    July 20, 2010 at 10:47 pm

  6. Red

    You misunderstand. As my original post said “it is a difficult sell” – in other words, getting the condo owners to agree to anything is hard – most don’t even attend the meetings! As you say, they do not have lots of spare cash – and they need to see a rate of return that would justify the expense. Hydro rates are going up, and carbon taxes too – but even so the pay back of many energy efficiency programs takes too long to be attractive.

    Stephen Rees

    July 21, 2010 at 8:00 am

  7. […] Surrey housing complex becomes model for energy efficiency [Stephen Rees's Blog] Vancouver park board to hear financial proposals on Bloedel Conservatory […]

    re:place Magazine

    July 21, 2010 at 9:01 am

  8. please accept my apologies Stephen. You are right of course. I shouldn’t e-mail after my bed time.

    Red frog

    July 21, 2010 at 10:13 am

  9. These are, of course, photovoltaic panels which, in the absense of government sponsored feed-in tarrifs, will do little but offer off-grid service in remote areas.

    Solar hot water, on the other hand, has a payback period of 6-8 years, and even here in the Wet Coast offers about a 50% yearly average displacement of natural gas or electricity that would otherwise be used to heat the water.

    District heating would offer even more savings from waste heat, such as that found in sewage which can be recovered using heat pumps. The Vancouver Engineering Department is to be credited for wanting to pursue this beyond the great success of the heating plant used for the Olympic Village.


    July 21, 2010 at 1:26 pm

  10. @ MB

    Good point about the sewage heat pump and district utilities. That being said, the sewage heat replaced an alternate idea of using biomass for a more reliable source of heat and arguably, just as green, if not more green. The criticism is that locals opposed the biomass plant more on aesthetic grounds or what they imagine a good environmental solution to be than reality.

    “”When I first came on board and I heard about that option, it surprised me a little, to be honest,” says Chris Baber, the young city engineer in charge of what’s being called the neighbourhood energy utility or NEU.

    After looking at all the information, he realized that the biomass, a.k.a. wood pellets, idea actually was the greenest feasible option for space heating and hot water, compared to other options.

    Baber said there are significant technical problems with [heat pump] technology. Only three similar plants exist in the world, and there is only one manufacturer of the needed heat pumps, in Switzerland.

    As well, he said, sewage flow varies through the day, which makes it difficult to generate a steady heat supply.

    “And then there’s the solids that need to be filtered out,” said Baber.

    The city’s information material claims the wood-pellet-burning system has many advantages. It’s considered carbon neutral, since burning wood waste doesn’t produce any more greenhouse gas than if the wood were left to deteriorate naturally. The environmental concern it does raise is particulate production. But much of that gets removed with a precipitator, says Baber.

    A large amount of B.C.’s wood waste is shipped to Norway and Sweden, where it is burned in urban wood-waste incinerators.”


    July 21, 2010 at 5:31 pm

  11. MB and Mezz

    Fascinating – but, as usual, topic drift. I am trying to draw attention to the issue of retrofitting the existing housing stock.

    Stephen Rees

    July 21, 2010 at 5:39 pm

  12. Well, solar thermal and air heat pumps are applicable to the existing housing stock.

    I’m considering them both for our century-old house which conveniently has a south-facing roof section angled at 45 degrees. We have already increased the insulation and replaced inefficiant windows. I suspect once liquid fossil fuels start spiking in price in a few years (surely by 2014), many vehicle fleet managers will look at natural gas as an alternative, therein the price in that fuel will rise again from higher demand. Guess what? Most of our space and water heating is met with gas. Therein, air heat pumps sales are bound to climb.

    Trying to convince my wife, though, to spend the money on solar panels and a heat pump is an entirely different matter.


    July 22, 2010 at 9:29 am

  13. I have an early 1950’s house that was built with a thin layer of rock wool insulation and single pane windows. The walls are cold in the winter and warm in summer. It’s on a north east corner so the sun shines on the house most of the day. That’s nice in winter, but on sunny summer days the inside temperature is typically 5C higher than the outside temperature.

    A few years back we put fibreglass insulation in the attic above the bedrooms and bathroom and replaced half the old windows on the main floor. This fall I plan to finish insulating the ceiling. Next year we hope to have the money for a more major renovation that will include replacing the remaining single pane windows, insulating the basement walls and replacing the hot water tank with a tankless system. While the basement is torn apart it would make sense to upgrade the furnace and ducts, but we’ll need significant financial help to do that.


    July 22, 2010 at 10:54 am

  14. “Could you persuade a strata council to set up a new levy on all the residents to pay for a program of energy efficiency retrofits which would pay back through lower energy bills?”

    Here in BC, unfortunately, I doubt it.

    However, in Hannover, Germany, there is a city-wide program that has been in existence since 1998. A carbon tax is added to natural gas sold in the region. The proceeds go specifically to finance home retrofits (in some cases up to PassivHaus standard).

    Only in German (or use Google Chrome and use the translate function):

    Download an English copy of the contract here:

    The hard truth for those of us interested in these topics (energy efficiency, energy retrofits and conservation, etc) is that in a province with some of the lowest electricity costs in North America, any energy retrofit is liable to have a 20-30 year payback period (if you’re lucky).

    The city or the provincial government would need to step in with a program similar to proKlima’s to get things moving. Until then, we’ll have the sorts of one-off examples cited above that don’t really lead to substantive change.

    Gwendal, thanks for the link to the home energy labeling website. It’s good to know that a few good people are pushing this along (it’s worked wonders in Germany over the past few years).


    July 22, 2010 at 11:12 pm

  15. “Could you persuade a strata council to set up a new levy on all the residents to pay for a program of energy efficiency retrofits which would pay back through lower energy bills?”

    The city of Paris has a program to help strata owners living in an older building (17th century to mid-1990s for example) to retrofit that building. Both the national and municipal governments offer 0% interest loans plus a variety of grants and income tax rebates. Private businesses with a certain number of employees also offer low interest loans (all sorts of loans and grants can be used together)

    But then hydro is much more expensive over there..and there is a huge housing stock going back centuries that is too valuable to tear down and must be retrofitted.
    I am pretty sure that most Euro countries, at least in Western Europe, have similar programs to help homeowners and even tenants update their homes and save money.
    Unfortunately the relevant info on is available in French only..

    Red frog

    July 24, 2010 at 12:53 am

  16. Well, its going to be tough. It is very hard to sell.

    installation heat pump

    December 5, 2010 at 10:42 am

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