Commentary - Nova Scotia energy efficiency let down by building code

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Dec. 9, 2022.

Here’s some good news: Nova Scotia ranks second in this year’s Efficiency Canada Scorecard on energy-saving policies.

“Canada’s national voice for an energy-efficient economy” has recognized our little province as a leader in energy policy for several years running, and this is our highest ranking yet.

We have moved up because Efficiency Nova Scotia has saved a little more energy than in previous years, decreasing electricity sales from Nova Scotia Power and putting more money into the pocketbooks of Nova Scotians. We’re also ensuring low-income households and Mi’kmaq communities benefit, with future plans to triple these investments.

Here’s one of the main reasons we didn’t come in first: “(Nova Scotia has) no plan to implement a net-zero energy-ready building code.”

The federal government produces a national model energy code, essentially a template that provinces can adopt. Earlier this year, Canada released its latest model (confusingly called the 2020 codes because its release was delayed two years).

That new model code has multiple performance tiers: five for small residential buildings, four for commercial, institutional and large residential buildings.

The top tier is the net-zero energy-ready standard, where buildings are so energy efficient they can easily supply their own energy needs with onsite renewables. It is the standard established by the undefeated energy champion in the Efficiency Canada Scorecard, British Columbia, and borrowed by the feds.

All Nova Scotia needs to do to step up is adopt the “2020” model building codes (one for small buildings and one for large ones). In its climate plan, released Dec. 7, the province committed to adopting the code but failed to spell out how Nova Scotia will progress up the efficiency tiers toward the net-zero energy-ready standard.

This is what New Brunswick did in its climate plan, starting in 2023 and reaching the top tier by 2030, committing it to specific achievements by specific dates. Our failure to do so in Nova Scotia shows we are not serious about greenhouse gas reductions. Nova Scotia risks falling behind our Maritime neighbours.

Yukon has committed to a net-zero energy-ready code by 2032, showing that being a small jurisdiction is no excuse.

British Columbia’s zero-emissions code goes even further. It prohibits fossil-fuel burning in new homes.

Enabling municipalities to use the new “performance tier” code is another important opportunity.

We have seen excellent examples of climate leadership at the municipal level, for example, in Lunenburg and Halifax, which have high net-zero standards for new buildings and are actively aiming to retrofit old buildings to meet modern efficiency standards.

At a minimum, the province needs to give municipalities the power to adopt the upper tiers of energy efficiency in the national building code.

The idea of Canada’s building code model is to offer a framework for governments at various levels to plug into and understand. If Halifax, for example, can muster the resources to train local builders and ensure compliance with higher performance levels, why not let them use their resources to do that? If the province won’t act, at least let the municipalities lead.

If the provincial government is serious about zero emissions by 2050, the most obvious thing it can do is ensure that all new buildings are built to this standard of energy efficiency as soon as possible. Every new building we create inefficiently takes us further away from net-zero emissions.

So why not build things right the first time?

Chris Benjamin is the energy efficiency co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

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