Yukonomist: The beast in your basement

There’s a beast in your basement and its accomplice in your driveway

When you were a child, you probably worried at night about the monsters under your bed or in the far corners of your basement.

Now you’re grown up and, although you seldom think about it, you really do have a beast in your basement.

I’m talking about your furnace. It sits down there in the dark, brooding and spewing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere. While it probably enjoys knowing that its fuel deliveries are one of the bigger numbers on your credit card bill, it also resents the fact that the “Last serviced” sticker on it is dated 2017. You expect it to heat your home, but you won’t even give it a new filter or clean its oil nozzle.

If you made a list of your biggest impacts on the global climate, your furnace would definitely be one of them.

Perhaps you thought of skipping a trip to Vancouver because of the carbon emissions? According to carbonzero.ca that would save half a tonne of emissions. Meanwhile, if you live in an older Yukon home and burn 2,000 litres of furnace oil per year, that emits 5.4 tonnes. That’s the equivalent of a dozen return flights to Vancouver.

Your other big beast is your car. Carbonzero says a 10-year-old Toyota Sienna all wheel drive minivan driving 15,000 kilometres emits 4.5 tonnes, almost as much as the furnace above.

The Yukon government is updating its climate change strategy. What could it do about the beast in your basement and its accomplice in your driveway?

The easiest and most obvious is to match the federal incentive for electric vehicles. The feds offer up to $5,000 if you buy a new battery-electric vehicle, and up to $2,500 if you buy a shorter range plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. BC and Quebec have parallel schemes that top up this incentive, and Yukon government could literally copy and paste the BC program into the next budget.

Consumer Reports from the US estimates that a modern electric vehicle’s battery pack will last 17 years, based on a life of 320,000 kilometres and 19,200 kilometres driven per year. The cost per tonne of carbon dioxide avoided if the car lasts that long, and the Yukon grid remains 93 per cent renewable, would be $70 per tonne if the Yukon matches the federal $5,000 rebate.

As for the furnace, you could add electrical heating systems to the existing government program that gives you $100 if you buy an efficient new appliance. This would also be easy to implement. All you would have to do is add a row to the existing form, and pick a number for the incentive if you switched from oil or propane to 100 per cent electric heat. Maybe something like $2,500 since furnace projects are more expensive than dishwashers. Even higher if you really wanted to jolt Yukoners into action.

The Yukon government has had incentives for home appliances for years, and just introduced a new incentive to help sheep and goat owners to install fencing around their animals. It also already has incentives for new oil, propane and wood heating systems, as well as some kinds of electric heat pumps. So if climate change is a big priority, why not all kinds of electric heat too?

If a furnace lasts 20 years and emits 5.4 tonnes per year, and the grid is 93 per cent renewable, then using a $2,500 incentive to get people to switch averts carbon dioxide at a cost of only $25 per tonne.

The furnace program would have the advantage of creating lots of local jobs removing old furnaces and installing electric heat.

It would also serve to kick start both the electric heat and electric vehicle markets. I have talked to a few Yukoners who told me they were interested in electric vehicles, but were worried they haven’t reached critical mass in the Yukon and would be difficult to service here. On the furnace side, in addition to electric baseboards, there are lots of early adopters with heat pumps and other interesting electrical heat technologies. A government incentive would boost demand and allow the Yukon’s entrepreneurs to ramp up their offerings and achieve economies of scale.

If you are worried about being 100 per cent reliant on the electrical grid for heat, there are also lots of hybrid options. The federal Department of Natural Resources booklet on heat pumps, for example, describes how you can insert a heat pump into your existing forced air furnace system. In effect, you then have a hybrid where most of your heat is electric but you still have an oil furnace for when it gets really cold. The government could put in a lower incentive for these conversions, much like the feds do with their smaller rebate for hybrid instead of fully electric vehicles.

There’s a good reason why the Yukon government should act soon on these incentives. Yukoners increasingly expect them. If the feds have electric vehicle incentives and the Yukon government is incentivizing everything from goat fencing to fridges, then who wants to be the person who buys an electric car or heating system early only to find out six months later that a big Yukon incentive has been put in place?

Given how easy these incentives are for the Yukon government to put in place, I would suggest doing your research now but holding off on buying electric cars or heating systems until the Yukon budget in March or April.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.