By Laura Keil, Publisher/Editor
Last week I Last week I commended Valemount’s new OCP for tackling the issue of housing in the way it governs land-use. But I have a gnawing concern about air quality.
According to the federal government, buildings come in #3 as a source of GHG emissions in Canada, and that is with most buildings using so-called “clean energy.” In the Robson Valley, we have the additional problems of prohibitive electricity costs (no natural gas) and local air pollution. Wood burning stoves emit particulate matter that is trapped by weather inversions, holding the pollution close to the ground where we breathe. Wood particulate includes lovely particles and gasses like carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (carcinogenic). Wood smoke can cause eye, nose, and throat irritations, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. It can make asthma and other respiratory problems worse and causes inflammation. Smog, to which wood smoke can be a significant contributor, has been linked to severe health risks, including increased hospital admissions and even premature death.
People take it as a fact of life that we must burn wood to heat our homes.
But is it a fact of life?
For old, leaky homes, it often is (though burning practices and energy retrofitting could improve things greatly). But for new homes, it certainly isn’t. New homes can be built to a high degree of energy efficiency with moderate additional cost in the short-term and big savings in the long-term.
When we built our Passive House in 2016, not many people knew about them. We didn’t receive a rebate from any level of government or BC Hydro, even though our house actually exceeded all the green building codes out there, simply because it wasn’t officially recognized as an option. Passive homes are designed to use 90% less energy than the typical home and 60% less than the current BC Building Code. In other words, to keep our house at 19 degrees year-round, we pay approx. $300-500 a year in BC Hydro’s ransom-like pay structure. We basically only heat our house with baseboards from November to March and usually only on cloudy days and at night. This was tested twice this winter: in January the power went out for 8 hours during a sunny day and the temperature in our house actually increased by 2 degrees, despite us going in and out of the house, thanks to the house’s excellent insulation and sun-optimized windows. Then on March 29th, we had a 26-hour power outage and the interior temperature of the house only dipped 1 degree overnight (temp was -8 outside), and then increased by 3 degrees the following day.
Overheating isn’t a problem in the summer, due to the house design.
Anyone building new has this option at their disposal, as well as other efficient building practices. The Village should consider incentivizing green-construction with tax breaks and limiting the number of wood-burning appliances in each new neighbourhood.
It boils down to simple math: On many winter nights and mornings, the particulate matter of the dangerous 2.5ppm size skyrockets to 100-300ppm (BC’s current air quality objective is no more than 25ppm over 24 hours). Now imagine if Valemount infills all its empty land (approximately 65 per cent of the village is currently vacant land). If the empty land is divided into a similar number of lots per area, that would potentially triple the particulate year-round—if those are single-family dwellings. Duplexes could add even more.
And consider that many residential areas can now build laneway homes and garage suites. What is the Village’s plan when it comes to solid-fuel burning appliances in secondary dwellings?
Now suppose there are two chimneys on, say, 50 per cent of current and infill lots due to either duplexes or additional dwelling units. Now we have the potential to increase the number of chimneys contributing to bad air by 4.5 times! That means a winter night with 100ppm now, could be 450ppm in the future (far exceeding Beijing on a bad day).
It is understandable to grandfather-in existing houses when it comes to wood stoves. But there is no excuse for allowing leaky homes to be built in the future at the cost of our community’s health.
I look forward to the day when I tell someone where I’m from and don’t have to cringe when they say: ‘You must have such fresh air!”