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New condo buildings are shown under construction in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
New condo buildings are shown under construction in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Vancouver begins controversial restrictions on natural gas Add to ...

Furnaces, fireplaces, hot-water heaters and cooktops that use natural gas will become a thing of the past for some new building projects in the City of Vancouver starting Monday.

All developments requiring a rezoning will become the first wave of buildings that have to comply with new standards designed to make Vancouver a zero-emissions city. While the city insists new energy efficiency rules designed to reduce emissions don’t outright ban natural gas, developers say the standards are so restrictive that it will be impossible to include it in any form.

Vancouver’s natural-gas supplier, FortisBC, as well as numerous small businesses and industry associations, say the policy will end up costing consumers three times as much as they pay now for natural gas, giving them less choice, and all while not necessarily achieving what the city hopes for.

“It’s of great concern,” said Jane Campbell, owner of CampbellCare Heating, Plumbing and Air, a 31-year-old business in the Kerrisdale neighbourhood on the city’s west side. “And I don’t think the city has a right to tell me and my clients what to cook with.”

City staff have repeated the message for the past year that Vancouver is not “banning” natural gas, as some critics have claimed.

Builders “will be able to use a mix of energy-efficient measures along with fuel choices including renewable energy and natural gas to heat, and power stoves and fireplaces,” according to an e-mail from city staff to the Globe and Mail this week.

However, developers and people in various sectors related to natural gas say the new energy-efficiency standards the city has set are so high that it will be prohibitively expensive for builders to include natural gas for anything, even cooktops.

“They’re just making it so difficult that it’s impossible,” said Bruce Rebel, the Ottawa-based representative for the Canadian branch of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

The development industry concurs.

“You could put in cooktops, but we would have to weigh the costs,” said Anne McMullin, CEO of the Urban Development Institute, an organization that represents Lower Mainland builders. “In a very high-end penthouse, you might put them in. Or if the demand is high, you would pay more for that.”

But, she said, most developers likely will simply avoid natural gas in order to meet the city’s new targets. A builder could try to achieve lower energy use in other ways, but that would cost a lot of money and it’s easier to avoid natural gas altogether.

“It’s just cheaper to put in baseboard heaters.”

She said the industry had already moved towards eliminating gas fireplaces in new condo buildings, in part because strata councils didn’t like the expense they caused when residents absentmindedly left them on all day.

The city’s new requirements will start to apply to all multi-family projects of four storeys or more in March 2018. It’s unclear when they would apply to single-family homes, duplexes, and rowhouses. It’s also unclear what kind of carrots or sticks would be put in place to convince owners of older properties to convert from natural gas to electricity or district-energy systems.

Vancouver is the first city in North America to move so aggressively. It is able to do so because the Vancouver Charter, the provincial legislation that sets out the city’s powers, allows it to mandate its own building code.

Other cities in British Columbia and the rest of Canada are governed by different legislation that doesn’t allow for a separate municipal building code.

Vancouver city officials have said that restaurants will still be allowed to use natural gas, in response to industry concerns that many commercial kitchens see it as an essential requirement.

As well, they’ve also said users can switch to biofuels.

However, FortisBC representatives say both of those assertions are problematic.

First, as the number of customers using natural gas goes down, the cost of maintaining the network of pipes to deliver it starts to become prohibitive.

“At some point, it would get difficult to maintain that infrastructure,” said Jason Wolfe, the company’s director of energy solutions.

And the biofuels solution won’t work if developers stop including natural-gas connections in new buildings, as they’re starting to do. Biofuels are delivered through the same system of pipes as fossil-fuel natural gas.

Secondly, said Mr. Wolfe, there isn’t enough biofuel to service the Vancouver market.

FortisBC is using biofuel, otherwise known as methane, from Vancouver-area landfills and farms.

But it is only able to produce 250,000 gigajoules of power a year from that. It might be able to ramp up to eight million gigajoules, under current technology. But Vancouver consumers use about 26 million gigajoules a year.

“We would need technological breakthroughs to do any more,” he said.

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