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Pushing clean heat for Yukon homes

Clean energy geeks of Yukon gathered last week to talk about weening the territory off of its fossil fuel diet.

Clean energy geeks of Yukon gathered last week to talk about weening the territory off of its fossil fuel diet.

The two-day workshop was hosted by the Yukon Conservation Society, and focused on the potential for electric thermal storage, or ETS, to maximize our renewable resources.

Using heat to store electricity is not a new idea - it was first used in Europe after WWII - but the technologies have in recent years have become much more sophisticated.

At its most basic, an ETS device uses heating coils to warm up ceramic bricks in a well-insulated casing. That energy is then released gradually as space heating.

The difference between using an ETS unit and regular baseboard heaters is that, while conventional heaters pull energy from the grid around the clock as needed, ETS units only pull from the grid either when demand is low, or supply of renewable power is high.

Energy demand on Yukon’s grid peaks in the morning, when people are getting up and ready for work, and again in the after work hours. Demand is much lower over the night.

So an ETS unit can charge - by heating up the ceramic bricks inside - overnight, and slowly release that heat to the home over the course of the day.

Switching Yukon homes from oil furnaces to ETS heat makes sense because they don’t pull electricity from the grid at times when spikes in demand require the use of diesel generators. They only pull energy when there is excess hydro power that would otherwise be spilled at the dam.

But do they make sense for consumers?

J.P. Pinard spent $17,000 to replace the oil furnace in his mid-sized Whitehorse home with an ETS unit, he told workshop participants and members of the public in a presentation last week.

Pinard is an engineer and renewable energy expert who is among those leading the push for ETS and wind power as an alternative to oil furnaces for home heating.

Yukon Energy will save money from Pinard’s ETS device, because heat for his home will not contribute to the spikes in power demand that require the utility to burn expensive diesel.

But Pinard won’t save money compared with what it would cost to heat the home with conventional electric heat. That’s because Yukon Energy and Yukon Electrical do not offer incentives to consume electricity during off-peak times.

Many jurisdictions do. In Ontario, for example, you pay 7.5 cents per kWh between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and between 11.2 and 13.5 cents per kWh during the day.

If Yukon had that sort of time-of-use pricing, it would incentivize the purchase of ETS devices because you could heat your house exclusively on cheap overnight power.

But in order for the utilities to provide time-of-use pricing, they would first have to install smart meters that know when power is being pulled to each house on the grid.

Yukon doesn’t have smart meters, and they are expensive to install, especially in a small jurisdiction where there are few ratepayers to split the costs.

To date Yukon’s utilities have concluded that smart meters would not be a good investment for the territory.

But there are other ways to incentivize ETS heat.

In Summerside, P.E.I., the local utility offered a rebate on all electricity usage to homeowners who switched from oil heat to ETS.

After installing the new system, homeowners received a guaranteed electricity rate of 8 cents per kWh for five years, compared with the regular rate of 13 cents.

While the homeowners had to pay upfront for the ETS unit, the savings on their power bill result in an average payback of five years, according to Greg Gaudet, the town’s director of municipal services, who also presented in Whitehorse last week.

The plan made sense for the utility because it had an excess of wind power that, before ETS, was being sold at a loss to New Brunswick.

The utility gained revenue both from the sale of ETS units and the new heating customers on its grid.

Those homeowners who signed up will see dramatically lower heating costs after the five-year payback on their investment.

And 142 homes were moved off of fossil fuel heat, resulting in a 42 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions related to the energy consumption of those households.

Getting ETS to the Yukon on a large scale won’t be easy.

Yukon Electrical has looked at the technology as part of its demand-side management planning, but so far has not found that it makes sense economically, said Laura Carlson, the utility’s senior communications advisor, in an interview last week.

“It just didn’t fit into the economic models that we had.”

Part of the problem is, ironically, that currently the Yukon burns so little diesel to fuel its grid.

Only about one per cent of Yukon’s total electricity usage comes from diesel, including off-grid communities.

Lots of homes burn oil for home heating, but since that happens independent of Yukon’s utilities, it does not factor into their cost calculations.

And since Yukon Energy and Yukon Electrical are regulated by the Yukon Utilities Board, they cannot make any investment moving away from fossil fuels unless they can prove it would be in the best interest of ratepayers.

“We cannot get recovery on costs unless the board says that we can,” said Carlson. “So there’s risk there for us, if a project doesn’t get approved. It’s challenging for utilities to be the groups that are leading on the edge of new initiatives, because we don’t have any certainty of recovering those costs.”

That’s a problem, according to Pinard.

“That’s been really the big lacking issue in the utilities board mandate, is they just look at what protects the ratepayers in the short term, and not in the long run,” he said.

The solution is to form an independent partnership of individuals and groups interesting in promoting renewable energy, said Pinard.

The group would promote “the good of the community with a long term vision of protecting the community.”

And that means investing in renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuel, he said.

‘We are one of the luckiest jurisdictions in Canada, where we can still make a choice.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at