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Ottawa set to re-introduce incentives for home-energy retrofits

Outfitting a house with solar energy panels is one step towards creating a net-zero energy building.

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

The Liberal government plans to re-introduce incentives for home-energy retrofits and commit to phased-in changes to the national building code that will eventually require all homes to be virtually energy self-sufficient.

Federal cabinet ministers are set to announce measures over the next six weeks aimed at improving energy efficiency and boosting the use of renewable energy in residential and commercial buildings, sources said Tuesday.

The goal is to have all builders within 15 years routinely construct "net-zero" homes, which combine energy-efficiency technology with home-based renewable energy sources to essentially eliminate the need for power from the electricity grid or natural gas.

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After nearly a year of consultations with provinces, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now moving forward the federal component of what he hopes will be a pan-Canadian strategy that will put the country on track to meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Mr. Trudeau will meet provincial and territorial premiers on Dec. 9 for a first ministers' climate summit. Earlier this month, he announced Ottawa will impose a minimum national carbon price on provinces that refuse to adopt either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade plan.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said recently that Ottawa will introduce new policies this fall to cut emissions, including measures aimed at the country's buildings, which emitted 11 per cent of Canada's GHGs in 2014. She said the adoption of carbon pricing alone will not be enough to meet Canada's international targets.

The Liberal government is also working on a plan to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired power, a policy that could put it on a collision course with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who on Tuesday again slammed the federal carbon-pricing plan and defended his government's plan to "clean up" coal-fired power plants rather than shut them down.

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On buildings, Ottawa will have a two-track effort – one set of measures aimed at reducing emissions in existing structures, and one aimed at toughening the national building code, which sets the standard for provincial codes. The federal effort is meant to complement actions taken by provinces such as British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Some home builders are already constructing custom-made, net-zero homes but they are not widely available in new subdivisions. The industry broadly supports a move to tougher building codes, with the eventual goal of a net-zero standard, said Dave Foster, director of communications for the Canadian Home Builders' Association.

"We support ramping up in a series of steps that ends in a net-zero performance," Mr. Foster said. "It's like laying out guidance to industry that this is where we are headed."

It is generally up to the provinces to set building codes, but Ottawa's National Research Council produces a national standard that most provinces simply adopt. Mr. Foster said it is crucial that any proposed changes to the code take into account affordability and technical issues that can affect safety and comfort.

Typically, net-zero homes include extra insulation, including high-grade windows and doors; passive solar features, high-efficiency appliances and rooftop solar panels. Mr. Foster said the net-zero measures can add $60,000 to the average price of a new home, but those costs have fallen and will continue to drop. At the same time, the homeowner can save thousands of dollars in energy bills.

The Liberals are expected to re-introduce a version of the popular home energy retrofit program that was expanded by the Conservative government during the 2008-09 recession and then ended in 2012. But the government will also target incentives at commercial property owners to drive efficiency improvements, major retrofits and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, sources said.

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The Canada Green Building Alliance released a study last month which concludes that, with cost-effective incentives, Canada could reduce emissions from the sector by 44 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. It is urging Ottawa to move quickly to establish a "net-zero" building standard that would encourage the industry to build homes that use 50 per cent less energy and incorporate renewable technology so that the homeowner uses little or no electricity from the grid or natural gas.

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