The Buckhorn Challenge

A grandmother from Buckhorn made national headlines by confronting the Prime Minister about her financial struggle with electric energy costs and objected to Ontario’s carbon pricing as an additional burden. She pointed to a $45 charge added to a bill for propane fuel.

She didn’t understand that electric energy policy and carbon pricing are both Ontario initiatives and that the federal government hasn’t yet imposed a national carbon price. But we have to sympathize with her plight. It puts a human face on a dilemma many of us are facing. Her candid revelation of household expenses offered an interesting insight into a common situation. The electric bill was reported to be $1,085, possibly for a month.

The woman “claimed her hydro bill has reached as high as $1,085. She did not state if that figure represented a monthly total or several months, but said she’s in “energy poverty”.” (Huffington Post, Jan. 13, 2017)

According to a comparative data published by the National Post, the cost of electricity from Peterborough Distribution Inc. is $164.78/1,000 kWh. (This a median-range cost compared to Innisfil, which is reported to be the fifth highest rate in the province at $182.09/1,000 kWh.) Based on this cost and stated billing, her household consumption of electricity may be more than 6 times higher than the normal average. This is a staggering anomaly but, if so, probably seasonal. It can likely be attributed to the use of electric baseboard heaters during winter months, which operate at 150 watts or more per foot. It wouldn’t be hard to run up a winter bill of $1,000 with 6 feet worth of baseboard heating in almost every room.

Doing nothing isn’t an option, so what strategy should this homeowner adopt?  The obvious choice is to improve conservation, which could reduce the use of both electricity and propane. Home energy efficiency is measured in terms of air exchanges per hour through an ‘air leakage test’. A rate of 10 or more is very poor while new houses are typically rated at 4. Depending on the outcome, sealing up obvious gaps and leaks might produce some savings. The next step would be to substantially improve insulation starting with the attic.

I also wanted to investigate whether there were any more-efficient alternatives to baseboard electric heaters and discovered Electric Thermal Storage (ETS) heating systems. This system stores heat in stacks of ceramic bricks enclosed in insulation, using electricity during off-peak hours including weekends to maximize savings. (Off-peak rate is 51% lower than the peak rate.) Heat is released as needed with a thermostatically controlled fan. ETS units range in size from stand-alone to fully ducted furnaces. (A reader has also suggested, on an earlier post, that current heat pump technology is very efficient.)

Conserving energy and shifting to a more efficient electric system opens the door to eliminating propane, deploying renewable energy generation in the future and eventually transitioning to net metering to eliminate the electric bill altogether. The potential to save thousands of dollars a year should be a major incentive to critically evaluate energy use for this homeowner.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to revisit this story a year from now and discover that some carbon levy funds have been allocated effectively to make this home a model of energy conservation, efficiency and low carbon use? Making people like this woman demonstrably more comfortable physically, mentally and financially while achieving the big-picture objectives of a low carbon economy is what it should be all about. We’re all waiting to learn how Ontario’s carbon funds will be deployed to make it happen. It’s only fair. After all, Ontario’s biggest industrial carbon polluters are gifted with a four year exemption while the rest of us pick up the tab.