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Turning up the HEAT

Saving a buck, SAVING THE EARTH

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Curtis Hull's problem should be familiar to most any Manitoban heading into the winter in an aging home: what to do about the old heating system?

For Hull, the decision was also an environmental one: the Climate Change Connection project manager had already worked out his carbon footprint with his old, mid-efficiency natural gas heater, and wanted to make the best choice for his new system


Based on what he knew about hydro-electricity -- renewable, emission-free-- and finding geothermal wouldn't fit his pocketbook or lot size, he opted for electric heating.

But in the short term, he thinks natural gas is likely the greener choice, and suspects by using electricity for heating now he's contributing to greenhouse gas emissions by denying coal-heavy American markets cleaner, surplus power from Manitoba.

"If you take the situation right here today, then it's better to burn natural gas in a high-efficiency furnace," he said. "...But I was in the process of changing my furnace, and I've put in a furnace that's going to last 20 years or more. I'm counting on everybody getting away from fossil fuels."

There's considerable debate over whether hydro trumps natural gas as the more environmentally-friendly type of heating, or vice versa. Throw costs into the mix and the question of green heating is bound to flummox the most well-meaning homeowner.

Here's a run-down on the pros and cons of the most popular heating options, and where the experts stand:


Manitoba leads the country in geothermal heat pumps, with roughly 4,000 of the systems around the province, and advocates tout the underground pumps as the most environmentally friendly option on the market.

Going geothermal could also earn you points under the new LEED for Homes in Canada program, which

certifies homes that meet green criteria much like the standard LEED program ranks office buildings.

Under the program, a high-efficiency natural gas furnace or boiler will earn the same points as a geothermal system. But heating with electricity, even hydro, won't earn you any points at all.

Program coordinator Chris Higgins conceded some people initially find it hard to understand the idea, particularly when they come from a hydo-rich province. "People will say, 'I don't have to worry about electrical efficiency... The only reason I would save power is so they can send it to someone else in California. Why would I bother?'"

Beyond the environmental impact of damming waterways, Higgins said the answer has partly to do with the international market for electricity, and partly to do with its inefficiency in terms of heating.

Surplus power can usually be bought and sold by different states and provinces -- most of Manitoba's surplus hydro goes to Minnesota, for example. As the argument goes, the less hydro used here, the more can be sold to Minnesota, where two thirds of electricity is normally produced with coal.

"If we use less electricity to heat our homes in British Columbia or Manitoba, and we use natural gas instead, or use a more efficient technology... that electricity can be used elsewhere for a higher use," said Higgins.

The argument is supported by University of Winnipeg senior scholar Peter Miller, who puts natural gas above even geothermal because the heat pumps still need electricity to run.

But not all environmentalists and energy experts agree. The David Suzuki Foundation favours hydro over gas, and thinks the LEED argument only works if coal plants are actually being taken offline as a result of the influx of cleaner energy. "That's almost never the case," said climate change policy analyst Dale Marshall.

The provincial government isn't a fan of the argument, either. "It is a paradox to go down that road," said Robert Walger, a project manager with the energy development initiative. "How does one motivate other jurisdictions to take responsibility for their business, and how they conduct their business?"


Working out a cost of any given heating system depends on dozens of factors, and how far into the future you're willing to count your savings.

Take geothermal. It's the priciest option to install, with costs from $19,000 to $25,000 depending on your lot size and your home's energy efficiency. However, getting a new system makes you eligible for thousands of dollars in provincial and federal incentives, as well as a low-interest loan from Manitoba Hydro to sweeten the pot.

Hydro estimates costs at about $568 annually, roughly half of what you'd pay with electricity or natural gas, and by some estimates the system will pay for itself in seven to 10 years.

For those who lack the set-up or cash for geothermal, natural gas is still slightly cheaper than electricity. Including space and water heating and a tank of gas, estimated costs range from $1,091 to $1,569, depending whether you've bought a high-efficiency model. If you do, you could receive another $500 back: that's the value of a rebate Hydro is offering until October 13.

Despite the appeal of gas prices now, unpredictable fluctuations make it tough to bank on those numbers in the long-term. In fact, one of the selling points of geothermal -- and electricity, for that matter -- is that the costs are generally more predictable.

Meanwhile, current electricity costs are estimated at between $1,218 and $1,237 for an average single-family home. The small difference comes from investing in a Power Smart electric water heater.

WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE? Greener: Most groups see geothermal as the greenest mainstream choice, but opinions are split on whether natural gas or hydro comes in second. The verdict depends in part on whether you see hydro-electricity as a renewable reward for Manitobans, or a resource to green up the rest of the continent.

That said, most everyone can agree on the importance of high-efficiency heating systems, and the need to make sure homes are well-insulated and sealed before investing in a new heater.

Cheaper: In the long-term, geothermal wins out as the only system that will pay for itself -- provided you actually need a new heating system, and don't live in a new home. Otherwise, high-efficiency natural gas furnace is the cheaper option. At least, it is for now -- whether that will be the case 10 years down the road is a tougher call.


Homes with gas heating: 238,500

Homes with electric heating: 136,700

Homes using other sources, like propane, oil or wood: 73,000


Biomass: Heating with biomass - which might mean firewood or straw pellets - is a traditional method can be surprisingly efficient, if done correctly. Biomass burning the green way depends on having a high-efficiency stove and access to dry, sustainably harvested wood or pellets.

Solar: Solar power has lots of potential, but it's not always cost-effective for heating when there's ready access to electricity or natural gas. Manitoba Hydro is involved in solar research, but as of yet there are no incentives for homeowners.

Wind: Hydro's overall power grid includes energy from a wind farm in St. Leon. But Hull says individual windmills aren't yet the solution for most homeowners, due to their ungainly size and the need for a long stretch of unobstructed land.


Going car free

Car traffic will be blocked off on Albert Street for Car Free Day festivities today, while later in the week students will compete for free bus passes and train fare in the Campus Commuter Challenge, running September 22 to 26. More information on both is available at, or by calling (204) 925-3774.

Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up

More than 60,000 Canadians across the country have registered for cross-country shoreline clean-ups. Clean-ups began Saturday, and run throughout this week. For more information, visit

Celebrate sustainable transportation

Learn more about alternative fuels and sustainable transportation at the National Alternative Fuel Vehicle (AFV) Day Odyssey, which includes a one-day conference at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg on October 3, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, see

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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