Thermal Energy Storage Helps Renewables

Thermal energy storage may be the cheapest way to absorb intermittent wind power in Ontario, according to a talk I just attended on Monday. Wind is a wonderful free and non-polluting source of energy, but its biggest flaw is that it isn’t constant, controllable, or even regular. In some places like Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, wind is actually anti-correlated to electricity demand. In plain language, that means it generally blows at night during moderate weather, when we have the least need for electricity. If we don’t find a use for that nighttime electricity, it goes to waste, along with all the money and resources that went to building the wind turbines.

Wind is generally anti-correlated to load, especially around Iowa, and that's why we need thermal energy storage

Wind is generally anti-correlated to load, especially in Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois, and that’s why we need thermal energy storage

This intermittency of wind isn’t the showstopper that the fossil industry would like you to think it is. There are many different ways to absorb it. You can store the energy in batteries, flywheels, compressed gas, thermal energy storage, behind hydroelectric dams, or just throttle down gas plants and save on fossil fuels whenever the wind is blowing. Or you can move it long distances on high voltage DC lines to other places where the wind isn’t blowing. All of those options have different advantages and disadvantages that depend on geography, and they all have high costs. In most of the world, the solution so far has been to throttle gas plants up and down contrary to wind. Another way to say the same thing, depending on your politics, is that gas plants provide back-up power for wind turbines when they’re not moving. That’s the cheapest option, as long as you don’t need to build any new fossil plants. It does not get us to a zero-emission grid, which is absolutely necessary to avert catastrophic climate change.

In Ontario, we’re already at the limit of what you can do by throttling gas plants, because we don’t have that many. Most of our electricity comes from nuclear plants, which have very little flexibility to throttle up and down. Throttling a nuclear plant doesn’t really save any fuel or money, and if you shut down a nuclear plant completely, it takes three days to bring it back up. So what now? Since last September 2013, the new solution has been to pay wind turbines to stop producing electricity when there’s too much wind. That’s the waste I was talking about in my first paragraph. Somebody’s got to pay for the wasted capital investment of building more electricity generation than we can use, and the contracts basically say the province has to pick up that tab.

We need a better solution, and thermal energy storage may well be it. When the wind is blowing, we can use heat pumps to generate hot and cold water, to be used later for heating and cooling while there’s no wind. A tank the size of a hot water heater might use nighttime wind energy to cool your house in the daytime, and a few week’s worth of heat or cold could be stored in geoexchange wells under your property. It turns out that this is much cheaper than building batteries or flywheels or long distance transmission lines. It’s even cheaper than building additional gas plants. And by using that system for heating as well as cooling, we can replace the natural gas used to heat your home with clean wind energy.

In order for thermal energy storage to help, the heat pump would need to know when the wind turbines are turning and when they’re not. Building that level of smarts into the grid is possible, but we’re not there yet. The current generation of smart meters doesn’t do that at all. They just allow different pricing by time of day, regardless of how much wind is blowing or what the demand is. That at least helps smooth out the day/night peaks, and that’s a start. But if consumer prices really followed the real wholesale market, you would see periods of negative prices when the wind suddenly picks up on mild days, and periods where it might triple in price on windless days at the peak of summer. That would provide a good market incentive for thermal energy storage, which would in turn help the whole system run more efficiently and, on average, more cheaply.

China’s Climate Reality and Natural Gas


With these words I started my first Climate Reality presentation in front of hundreds of students at SiChuan University in China. Not only did the university honour me by opening up an auditorium for my presentation, but attendance was declared mandatory for graduate students in their Manufacturing Engineering program.

My wife's cousin was on the train shown on this slide.

Yannick Trottier delivering the Climate Reality presentation in China

My wife is originally from China, and she was able to arrange through friends for me to give this Climate Reality presentation, as well as an upcoming one at Beijing University of Chemical Technology. There’s always a risk of being presumptuous when you go to another country and talk about their problems, but this is really a global issue. My wife’s cousin was stranded on the flooded Toronto train shown on one slide of the Climate Reality presentation. This story, together with my engineering background and my knowledge of China, gave me some good handles to connect with this audience.

Although most of our conversations were about climate change, we talked a bit about my expertise in geothermal heating. Most of China doesn’t really need winter heating, and doesn’t use as much air conditioning as the West. They just dress according to the weather, even on the few days when indoor temperatures drop below freezing. But I learned that geothermal heat pumps are being installed on a large scale in the north part of the country, in places like Heilongjiang, where their winters are more similar to Canada’s.

Natural gas prices are around 5 times higher in China than in North America, so it’s not a very good way to heat homes here, neither on price nor environmental merits. In the next few years, Canada will start exporting boatloads of liquified natural gas to China on a regular basis, and prices will even out between the two continents. It’s reasonable to predict that the equilibrium price will be somewhere in between, and that means Canadian prices are set to rise. As of this writing, natural gas is a cheaper way to heat an Ontario home than geothermal, if your pipeline is already paid for. But it won’t be long before geothermal takes back the lead. That’s something to think about before Ontarians connect their home to the natural gas network.

Climate Science and Engineering Ethics

I am troubled by the number of engineers who persist in denying climate science. Multiple independent surveys have found that 97% of climate scientists (i.e. scientists from any field who publish papers about the climate) are in agreement that humans are causing global warming. This conclusion has been endorsed by all national academies of science, from the United States to the Vatican. To contradict this consensus implies that scientists are guilty of either pervasive incompetence or a global conspiracy. Either option is absurd.

The conspiracy theorist have utterly failed to provide any evidence for their allegation. Their best effort, the “climategate” emails, were reviewed by multi-disciplinary panels of academics and found innocent. Out of this massive trove of hacked emails, a thorough search for incriminating quotes found nothing but few offhanded comments. Even those had to be presented out of context in order to create the appearance of impropriety. If this is a conspiracy, you have to wonder how it maintains tighter security than the US government.

The other view, that the world’s scientists need to be rescued from a collective delusion, is incredibly arrogant. Frank Gue’s letter in the July/August issue brags about our B.Sc.’s before declaring that global warming has ceased and other nonsense. Aside from ignoring the warming of the deep oceans, he dismisses the work of Ph.D.’s with decades of experience studying the climate. Credentials do not prove that someone is right, but academic work does merit a careful review before it is denigrated. And yet I find engineers scoffing at the IPCC reports while refusing to read them. Engineers who trust angry blogs over peer-reviewed journals. At best, they affirm an undue faith in obscure scientists who have been unable to gather any peer support for their fringe views. This is not critical thinking; this is the conceit of crackpots.

Stop Global Warming clip artNo engineered byproduct, not even nuclear waste, has the potential to cause as much harm to the public as greenhouse gases. This has to trigger our code of ethics. Contrarians may privately support the Flat Earth Society if they wish, but not in a professional capacity. When we identify ourselves as professionals and provide advice to the public, it must be based on the best available science. Any engineer who publicly opposes climate science should be called to explain themselves before the PEO’s discipline committee.

I would even argue that engineers have an ethical obligation to refuse work on systems of fossil combustion. We should be walking away from natural gas plants and putting our skills to use in hydroelectric projects. We should stop specifying boilers or furnaces for buildings, and insist on passive heating and cooling, supplemented by heat pumps. We should declare internal combustion engines obsolete and design electric cars instead. We need to study that hydrogen-powered B-57 jet designed by our American colleagues in 1956, and stun the world by proposing a new line of carbon-neutral airliners. Our code of ethics demands that we take leadership of this progress.

Yannick Trottier, P.Eng., Mississauga, Ontario

The above letter was published (without hyperlinks) in the Sep/Oct 2013 issue of Engineering Dimensions, Volume 34, Number 5. Engineering Dimensions is the magazine of the Professional Engineers of Ontario.

Climate Reality Training

Logo of Climate Reality Leadership Corps

We educate the world about the reality of climate change

Two weeks ago I attended the Climate Reality training in Chicago. Do you remember An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore? It was a movie, but also a powerpoint presentation given in person by volunteers around the world. I am now one of those volunteers, trained by the man himself.

The presentation has been greatly revised since the 2006 movie. This is in part to keep up with scientific developments, but also to take a new approach to convincing people. The original version was heavy on facts and reasoning, in keeping with Gore’s personality and the scientific origin of the issue. It relied on the power of reason, an ideal which seems to be failing us in modern times. The rebuilt Climate Reality presentation is still solidly rooted in facts – Gore had two scientists on stage with him the whole time to correct his occasional mistake – but now it is designed to evoke a more vivid connection to the problem.

photo of car ploughing through a flooded street

I took this picture myself outside my home in Mississauga during the flash flood of July 8th 2013.

The presentation now contains many photographs showing the current effects of global warming already underway. In the training, we were given many tools to relate with our audiences and make the conversation personal. The true gravity of future dangers has been muted. The idea is to be gently persuasive when talking to people, so as to bypass automatic denial reactions.

We have long known that denial is a normal human reaction reaction to terrible news, and a recent book suggests that this mechanism is an essential partner to human intelligence. Without denial, we might all be debilitated by depression when we realize the unavoidability of death. In “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind,” Ajit Varki and Danny Brower suggest that this is what holds back the evolution of theory of mind in other species. Humans broke through that barrier by simultaneously acquiring an ability to selectively block out facts that cause constant depression.

This reminds me of some work by Martin Seligman, who once found that people make their best predictions when in a pessimistic frame of mind. This would be consistent with a denial mechanism that only ever deludes us in one direction, towards optimism. I also find it interesting to think of this in terms of the divided brain hemispheres. Research shows that the right brain seems to understand humanity better, and its default mood is depression. The left brain is ever optimistic and more successful with machines. You can see these differences in stroke victims where the damage was primarily in one side of the brain or the other. So maybe the increased division of the hemispheres is how humans are able to fool themselves? The right brain understands the broader picture, while the left brain avoids the parts it doesn’t like? It seems that some smart people are already thinking along those lines.

So if the left, logical, brain rejects climate reality to avoid debilitating depression, it makes sense to try again with the right, human, brain. To do that, we must speak its language. We need to invite it to the conversation by exposing our own vulnerable hearts. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, we need to do that while maintaining a firm connection to the underlying science. It is well known that the most passionate activists often have trouble with logical rigour, and have a tendency towards exaggerating the dangers.

To carry the conversation forward about climate reality, we need people who can think both ways reasonably well. We need renaissance men and women, polymaths, people who can keep a sharp mind and a warm heart. I was thoroughly impressed by the range of serious committed people who accepted this invitation and attended our training in Chicago. Soldiers, religious leaders, business men, union leaders, and engineers like me, have all committed to show leadership. We will warn the world about what we have learned.

Electricity Conservation is Bad

Consider geothermal heating for homes

photo of Bob Chiarelli, advocate of conservation

Bob Chiarelli, MPP, Minister of Energy

Minister Chiarelli should be working on energy conservation, not electricity conservation. (See “Conservation Before New Generators”, July 17) We consume far more energy in cars and furnaces than in our electric plants. We should be replacing those fossil systems with electric ones, and that means more clean electricity generation.

Consider geothermal heating. These systems, sold throughout Ontario, heat your home with pollution-free energy from the ground. They do need some electricity to run the pumps and compressors, but still provide a 75% energy saving overall. But Ontario’s saveONenergy program is subsidizing fossil furnaces ahead of geothermal because burning more oil saves electricity.

Ontario should be preparing for a future of electric cars, geothermal systems, and electrified industry by building more clean generation plants. If we let Chiarelli focus on the cheapest price tag, that can only mean fossils. We’ll pay for that later through disaster relief and rising food prices.

Yannick Trottier, Mississauga

The above was a Letter to the Editor published in the Toronto StarAfter my letter was published, Mark Henschel concurred with a follow-up letter:

The benefits of geothermal

Just to amplify Yannick Trottier’s argument, geothermal — more properly “geothermal exchange” — systems both heat and cool buildings by moving heat into and out of the earth at need.

While a gas furnace — or, indeed, any heat creating scheme — can never exceed 100 per cent efficiency, because a geothermal-exchange system simply moves existing heat energy back and forth, it can be 300 per cent efficient delivering 3 units of energy (or more) for every unit expended.

Geo-exchange systems can also benefit from economies of scale and be implemented as district utilities in communities, just like other utilities; water, power, etc, to good effect.

Mark Henschel, Toronto

Construction holdback and liens

Picture a house sitting on a pile of holdback money

Holdback rules could cost you thousands of dollars more than you expected.

Construction holdbacks are one of the most confusing elements of a renovation contract. The basic holdback rule in Ontario is this: by law, the homeowner should wait 45 days after the work is finished before paying the last 10% of the contract price. Now here’s the major confusion: this delay and payment is not there for final adjustments or fixing problems. It is there to cover disputes between your contractor and his suppliers – disputes that you, the homeowner, might not even know about.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear that I am an engineer, not a lawyer, and I am not qualified to give legal advice. However, I’m still going to share my thoughts, since real legal advice is typically too expensive and too complicated to understand anyway. You can try reading the Construction Lien Act yourself, but judges aren’t necessarily bound by the written law, especially when it’s this messy. For example, in Forte Aluminium Ltd. v. Frank Plastina Investments Ltd. (1989), the judge ruled that although the act could be interpreted one way, it was so widely understood differently that it was better to go along with the majority view. So take anything you read with a grain of salt; I do not believe anyone can ever predict what might happen in court.

Why are holdbacks required by law?

portraits of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison modified the concept of maritime liens to apply to buildings

It’s hard to make any sense out of modern holdback rules without looking at the history of liens. The concept of a lien goes back to medieval times when it originally applied to ships, but we won’t need to go back quite that far. We can start when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison came up with the idea of applying liens to buildings. The idea was to encourage builders to take on projects without demanding full payment in advance.

Without the lien system, builders would have a greater risk than merchants. If you fail to make payments on your car or refrigerator, a merchant can eventually repossess it. But what can a builder do if the homeowner does not pay? If he came to rip the pipes out of your property, that would cause disproportionate harm to your home, and the recovered pipes would be worthless to him anyway. By placing a lien on a building, the builder records that part of the building’s value belongs to him, and he will get his money when the building is eventually sold.

The original 18th century American implementation was a simple system designed to minimize lawsuits. Then the lawyers got a hold of it and figured out how to abuse and counter-abuse the system, and answered their own abuses with ever more complicated laws. It’s now more complicated to preserve a lien than it is to sue directly for the money. Everybody loses, except for the lawyers. On top of that, Ontario’s current law seems to have been written with condo developments in mind, as have most articles online, and it becomes hard to figure out how the system is supposed to work for residential renovations.

The holdback concept was introduced to protect homeowners against liens, which were originally meant to protect builders against homeowners who did not pay. The end result is that all construction companies and material suppliers in Ontario are now forced, not just encouraged, to finance at least 10% of any project, secured by a lien on your house. This is supposed to represent the “notional profit” for all of the companies involved in the renovation. Then the banks caught on, so if you’re borrowing money to renovate, they may refuse to lend you the last 10% until the work is done.

Here’s the key point to understand: since this 10% holdback is essentially a loan from your builders, not a final payment, that means that you agreed to pay it when you made the progress payments. The question that takes 45 days to resolve is who should the loan be paid out to, nothing to do with the quality of the work.


If you really want to withhold some money until you are satisfied that a problem has been fixed, that’s called a “set-off,” and it needs to come out of an earlier progress payment, not the final holdback. For example, imagine a $100K contract structured like this:

  • $40K phase 1
  • $50K phase 2
  • $10K as holdback 45 days after final completion

Suppose that the project runs into a problem, and the contractor agrees to take $10K off the total price to compensate you. Now that the total project price is $90K, and the legally required holdback is $9K. So 10% of the price reduction can come out of the holdback, but the other $9K has to come out of the phase payments. Here’s the revised payment schedule:

  • $40K phase 1
  • $41K phase 2
  • $9K as holdback 45 days after final completion\

If you’ve already paid the two phase payments, then the contractor owes you a $9K refund right away, and you will owe him $9K back after the 45 days. Do you think you can trust your contractor to cancel out those two debts? Even if he’s professional and trustworthy, it’s not up to him. Any of his subcontractors, or their subs, or their material suppliers, could come out and claim that holdback during those 45 days. If that happens, you really want to know that your contractor will give you the $9K refund he owes you.

Exceptions to holdbacks

Just in case that was too simple, the holdback rule is not universal, and it is often incorrectly applied. If your renovation contract includes goods that can be repossessed, like a refrigerator, you cannot keep a holdback on that portion of the contract. If a contractor does a simple repair job himself, without hiring any subcontracts or buying any materials, then there is no other party who could surprise you with a lien, and I’m not sure what would be the point of waiting 45 days. On large projects, (usually condos,) portions of the holdback can be released in proportion to the finished work based on statutory declaration. Rules also vary by jurisdiction; for example British Columbia does not allow holdbacks from architects or engineers.

Icon of justice scales, with money on one side and holdback laws on the other.

Weigh your options before deciding to sue.

You will find many editorials written by lawyers who advise you to take a hard line and demand your rights, but I find a conciliatory approach is usually more productive. Keep in mind that lawyers profit from adversity, but you don’t. Many contractors out there genuinely misunderstand the holdback laws and may respond well if you educate them. Or maybe your contractor can educate you about some subtleties of the law that you were not aware of. Even if you are sure you are right, and have a lawyer to back you up, the court’s eventual decision might surprise you.

Many homeowners are intimidated by contract negotiations, so it’s good for them to pump themselves up with that hard-line advice before picking up the phone. But if your contractor offers you reasonable assurances or compensation, sleep on it for a night before making a decision. In the end, you might still have to fire him, withhold payment, or even take him to court, but make sure you’ve tried talking it out first.

Sage Advice

If you don’t think your contractor’s work is finished, then don’t sign off anything saying it is. If you do, then that last holdback payment will come due 45 days later, regardless of whether your contractor came back to do any more work. You are not allowed to keep it as a penalty for poor quality or incomplete work.

If you are happy that everything was done right, then you still need to wait those 45 days before sending the last cheque, no matter how much you trust your contractor. Otherwise you could wind up paying the holdback twice, so that your renovation costs you 10% more than you expected.

That’s what Holmes says, from the TV show Holmes on Homes.

Canada’s clean electricity

Fossil fuels produce 20% of Canada's electricity and 12% of Ontario's electricity.

Sources of electricity generation in 2012 across Canada and across Ontario, including industrial sources
(from Statistics Canada survey 2151, table 127-0002, “Electricity Power Generation, by class of electricity producer”)

When people think about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, electricity conservation is usually the first thing that comes to mind. But in actual fact, Canada has one of the greenest grids in the world, so clean that not using it may actually increase your overall emissions! Only 20% of Canada’s electricity came from fossil fuels in 2012, and Ontario is doing even better than the Canadian average.

Ontario has been phasing out coal power and will shut down its last two coal power plants this year. They even let you see where your electricity is coming from right this hour. The bulk of our electricity comes from nuclear, which has its own problems, but is still far better than coal. The fossil waste we dump in our atmosphere will hurt many more people much sooner than radioactive waste secured in bunkers. If that’s not good enough for you, I suggest you look into Bullfrog Power. For an extra 3 cents per kWh, you can help wind and low-impact hydro compete against fossil fuels and nuclear power.

In regions with a cold climate and clean electricity, (that includes Ontario and Quebec,) conserving electricity will increase your greenhouse emissions. That’s because the “wasted” electricity in your home helps to heat it in the winter, and displaces the fossil fuels you use to heat your home. If you turn off the lights, or switch to compact fluorescents, or get a more efficient refrigerator, your thermostat will have to make more calls to the furnace to make up the heat. Your electricity conservation efforts are doubly useful in the summer, because they also reduce your air conditioning load, but the net annual balance is still an increase in energy use and carbon emissions.

This is an important difference between the USA and Canada that needs a different strategy. In the USA, 65% of the electricity comes from fossils, most of that from coal.  And because of their warmer climate, waste heat from lighting and appliances generally adds more load to their air conditioner than it saves from their furnace. In that context, electricity conservation is crucial to reducing emissions. In some American states, geothermal heat pumps and battery electric cars can actually increase greenhouse gas emissions, unless and until they fix their electricity infrastructure. The strategies needed in Canada are almost the opposite of what is needed in the USA, so I get upset when people tell me we need to follow America’s lead.

I don’t want to discourage electricity conservation. I just want people to understand it as one part of the overall energy conservation problem, and to set priorities sensibly. Canada’s entire electric grid only accounts for 13% of our secondary greenhouse gas emissions, less than what is put out by our furnaces. If you live in Canada and you’re serious about personally helping the environment, your first priorities should be to insulate your house and install a geothermal heat pump. Until you do both of those things, all of your energy-efficient lighting and appliances will temporarily have a net effect of accelerating global warming.

Supplementary Electric Heat

People are often suspicious of geoexchange systems before they buy one. Getting free heat out of the ground just seems too good to be true, so they stay alert for some kind of trick. Does the heat really come from the ground, or is it really just a big electric heater with a lot of marketing on it? The ground is warm, but not as much as my house – am I going to have to wear a jacket indoors?

As a professional engineer, I can assure you that a geothermal heat pump could keep your house at 28°C if you wanted it to, and the savings are real. For every kWh of electricity that goes into a properly designed geoexchange system, two to three kWh are extracted from the ground. If you insist on thinking of it as just an electric heat, then that would mean the typical efficiency is a stunning 340% !

The math is easy for me, but it can get a little confusing for the average consumer. Different installers dispute each other’s math, and then you don’t know what to believe. So when you find out that your heat pump won’t provide all the heat and needs a supplementary electric heater, that brings back your skepticism. When you find out that this electric heater is 10 kW and connects to a 60A breaker, the alarm bells go off. Why do you need that? How much electricity is that thing going to burn? Does that mean heat pumps don’t work well in the winter?

A plenum heater is a set of electric heating elements that fits inside your plenum.

Typical plenum heater. This is installed just upstream from your heat pump to supplement it on the coldest nights of the year.

In fact, it would certainly be possible to choose a larger heat pump that can supply all of your heat, but that’s just not a good idea. Bigger heat pumps need bigger ground loops and bigger ducts, and all of it is expensive. And then your system would be running at reduced efficiency through most of the year because it’s too big for the ambient temperatures.

It’s better to engineer the heat pump for a typical winter day, say -10°C, and then add a bit of electric heat to get you through those occasional -20°C cold snaps. That can easily save you 25% on installation costs and improve the overall efficiency at the same time.

There’s no reason to be afraid of the extra electricity costs. Even though a typical plenum heater could provide as much heat as your heat pump, in practice it will only contribute 2% to a properly designed system. Those temperature extremes where it turns on are not common, they don’t last very long, and even then the electric heat is only helping out while your heat pump still does most of the work. If you want to check the numbers for your own area, you can make use of my spreadsheet interface for Environment Canada’s climate data.

The plenum heater's contribution was exaggerated for visibility by choosing a particularly cold year and only graphing the daily minimum temperatures for each day.

The plenum heater’s contribution was exaggerated for visibility by choosing a particularly cold year and only graphing the daily minimum temperatures for each day.

It’s not just me saying this. Our national standard for earth energy systems in small residential buildings, CSA C448.2, requires that geothermal heat pumps provide between 70% and 105% of the design heat loss, with the rest made up by supplementary heat. (Clause 10.3) In practice, that means your heat pump will supply less than 100%, because heat pump sizes don’t come in 5% increments; it’s more like 25%, so there’s only going to be one size that fits in that prescribed range. CSA C448 also has an informative note: “The intent of this clause is to ensure that the heat pump supplies more than 90% of the building’s design heat load.”

When you’re new to geothermal, it can be tempting to oversize the system for extra security and make make the plenum heater unnecessary. Now you know that this wastes money, it doesn’t comply to code, and it might even reduce your overall efficiency. This is one of many counter-intuitive aspects of geoexchange systems that needs professional attention. Find yourself an engineer you can trust, and let him or her do the design.

R-410a and the environment

R-410a Refrigerant

I just did my ozone depletion training today. The process is about as interesting as getting your driver’s license. It’s all dead simple stuff, but you’ve got to know it perfectly because the consequences can be so serious if you mess up.

Canada has been a world leader in ozone layer protection since the Montreal Protocol of 1987, and the rules are still stricter here than in the US. They allow 15% leakage per year, while we have zero tolerance policies. Until recently, Americans could use a plastic bag to recover refrigerants, whereas nothing short of a gas cylinder is legal here. If you try to do things the American way here, the minimum fine is $5000 for a first offence.

Basically a blue garbage bag with labels on it.

Refrigerant recovery bag used in the USA.

Warning: Contains CFC12, HCFC22 or CFC500, a substance which harms public health and environment by destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere.

But it’s OK because there’s a label.

Those same rules apply to heat pumps, even though there’s really no risk to the ozone from our systems. I’ll try to explain that without getting into too much techno-babble: In North America, all new residential geothermal systems (that I know of) use a modern refrigerant called R-410a. It is also known by other names like Genetron AZ-20 and Puron, and companies like Honeywell and Forane like to put their brand name on it, but it’s all just different names for the same stuff. In Europe they use R-290, also known as propane. Neither R-410a nor R-290 has any chlorine or bromine in them, so they cannot do any harm to the ozone layer. Like most refrigerants, R-410a does have fluorine in it, but fluorine refrigerants don’t hurt the ozone; only the ones with chlorine and bromine do that.

It’s easy to get confused by the terms when you’re new to this. The acronyms CFC, HFC, and HCFC all sound alike, but they have very different impacts on ozone. You may have heard that they are all fluorocarbons, or halocarbons, which is true, but not all halocarbons are bad for the ozone layer. And sometimes the regulations are written by lawyers who didn’t understand chemistry too well, and their scientific wording is sloppy. But the bottom line is that the refrigerant in our geothermal heat pumps, R-410a, is an HFC halocarbon that has zero ozone depletion potential.

So why do we need a license to work with R-410a? The official reason is because of its impact on global warming, which is really a separate problem from the ozone layer. One ton of R-410a released into the atmosphere would cause much more warming than one ton of carbon dioxide. 1725 times more warming, to be exact. So let’s not release a ton of R-410a, OK?

When people first learn about this, they sometimes wonder if geothermal is really all that good for climate change in the long run. Does the “global warming potential” of R-410a wipe out your savings from getting rid of your furnace? The answer is no. If you do the math and add everything up, you’ll find there’s really nothing to worry about.

A typical house with a modern high efficiency natural gas furnace will produce about 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide per year. To get the same heat with a geothermal, you would probably use a 3 ton heat pump charged with 2.7 kg of R-410a. The Ontario electric grid will produce 1.2 tons of carbon dioxide to power that heat pump, so making the switch will save 4.2 tons per year for the life of the system. If an earthquake were to destroy the system and release all that refrigerant to the atmosphere, that would cause as much environmental damage as 4.7 tons of carbon dioxide.

In order for the R-410a to wipe out the gains you made from switching to geothermal, you would need to have a catastrophic failure about once a year – not likely. Remember, Canada has a zero tolerance for leaks. Globally, refrigerants cause 99% of the ozone layer problem, but only 1% of the global warming problem.

Refrigerants (F-gases) only made up 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004.

Refrigerants (F-gases) only made up 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004.

That means the rules are working, but we need to keep up the good work. If we went back to being as reckless with refrigerant as we were in the 1980’s, that number could go back to being 10% or more. And the reason refrigerants make up such a small sliver of the pie is really because we’ve been unsuccessful at regulating any other greenhouse gas. Many refrigeration techs are kind of bitter that they get a $5000 fine for releasing a kilogram of refrigerant, while you can literally dump a few tons of carbon dioxide out of your car’s tailpipe for free. It’s not exactly fair.

Why the different treatment? Here’s where I speculate as to the real reason why we need a license to work with R-410a: bureaucracies are primarily interested in their own survival. Ozone depleting substances are going to be phased out completely by 2030, so now the bureaucracy that controlled them is scrambling to find a new justification for their existence. That would be global warming. I’m not complaining – it’s a good cause – but I do find it insightful to note that they are more successful at pushing their agenda than any democratic group. I just hope that their lawyers find some crazy way to extend their mandate to all carbon dioxide emissions. After all, it is a refrigerant. (R-744)

Ontario subsidizes fossil fires


In true Orwellian fashion, an Ontario program that discourages energy conservation is called “save on energy.”

I’ve got a problem with Ontario’s grants for home heating. As of this writing, they’re rewarding polluters and discouraging the best environmental solution.

It used to be different. Under the ecoEnergy retrofit program, there was a big incentive for homeowners to do the right thing. The Canadian government would grant $4375 for a new geothermal heat pump, and then the Ontario government would match an additional $4375. Add to that the $1350 home renovation tax credit available in 2009, and there was once over $10,000 available in government money to help people make the switch to geothermal. The NDP made the ecoEnergy program a key issue in the 2011 election. They forced the conservatives to extend the program by one more year, but in the end it didn’t survive Jack Layton’s death. Since then, it’s been much harder for the industry to make sales in Canada.

Today, not only are the geothermal subsidies all gone, but the Ontario government has completely flipped over to subsidizing fossil furnaces instead. Ontario’s saveONenergy program offers up to $650 to homeowners who replace their heating and cooling systems – but only for conventional systems that burn fossils in the winter. There’s a comprehensive list of eligible systems, and geothermal manufacturers are not welcome on that list. Why is that? The Ontario Power Authority who run the program don’t give much of an explanation; they just say it’s government policy.

I had a chat with my MPP, Dipika Damerla, about this. She promised to ask some questions for me, but she didn’t really express support. She says there’s a big push right now for Ontario to reduce electricity use, and geothermal heat pumps do use more electricity than conventional furnaces do. Although that’s true, it exposes an important misunderstanding about energy systems. Ground-source heat pumps get most of their energy from the ground, so they result in large fuel savings even after you subtract the fuel used to produce the electricity. As I pointed out in a follow-up email to Ms. Damerla, having 50,000 gas furnaces in your urban neighbourhood produces more air pollution than the natural gas power plant that was cancelled in Mississauga over pollution concerns. So why are home chimneys still legal in cities?

Even if there were no energy savings, using geothermal would still be better for the environment. Ontario’s electricity is mostly nuclear, with hydro in second place for realized production. That makes Ontario’s grid among the cleanest in North America and getting cleaner all the time. But instead leveraging this advantage with the 400% efficiency of heat pumps, our government is encouraging people to displace geothermal systems with fossil fuel furnaces. I hope this is an unintended consequence, because it’s just plain looney when you understand the math.

There are other “energy” or “renovation” tax credits that people sometimes ask about, but they are not relevant to geothermal. The energy component of the Ontario Energy and Property Tax Credit is just a bit over $200/year, if you live on a reserve, and electricity counts as well as fuel. Ontario’s new Healthy Homes Renovation Tax Credit only helps for physical accessibility improvements. (I guess they think climate control just isn’t that important to your health.)

I’m not done with this issue. I plan on following up with my MPP and others, and I’ve suggested a campaign to the Citizens Climate Lobby. I’ll post updates as things develop.