Fossil Fuel Subsidies

The following is an excerpt from “How to Future Proof Your Home: A Guide to Building with Energy Intelligence in Cold Climates.

Why Fossil Fuel Subsidies are a problem

Consider what fossil fuel subsidies and artificially low prices for fossil fuel (in this case natural gas) translates to in the big picture. Even though the gas used to heat most of our buildings is clean-burning and still relatively cheap to purchase, if you consider its true cost due to what economists call “externalities,” natural gas, along with the other fossil fuels on which we depend, are extremely expensive. This topic necessitates a book in itself, but I refer to, in particular, our dependence on a commodity that is prone to price volatility; our tax dollars going towards subsidizing its extraction and usage; and damage to the environment, which in terms of real dollars can often not even be quantified due to water pollution, air pollution, smog and direct contribution to global warming. On a societal level one should also consider the barrage of plastic and dispensable junk products that are refined from the extraction of petrochemicals, perpetuating a throw-away mentality toward most consumer goods in the majority of the population. But the real issue that should be on the minds of all citizens is the insane use of taxpayer dollars towards the subsidization of the most profitable and polluting industry in the world: namely, the fossil fuel industry. In 2011 the worldwide transfer of wealth from energy dependent citizen to excessively profitable corporation was estimated to be in excess of $523 billion dollars, with $3 billion of those tax payer dollars coming from Canadians.[i]

Without digressing further from the topic of buildings, consider that the national building code was once applicable across Canada. Hence, what was acceptable in Vancouver was also acceptable in Saskatoon. While this is no longer true due to recent improvements, one must ask the question: how can a standard that works in a more temperate climate such as Vancouver BC( whose average January low temperature is 3°C and yearly average temperature is 11.02°C) or Toronto (whose average January low temperature is -7°C and yearly average temperature is 9.16°C) apply to a place like Saskatoon whose average January low temperature is -22°C and yearly average temperature 2.6°C?[ii]

The short answer is that this standard isn’t sufficient for the climate in which we live, nor for the world in which we live. If you don’t believe me, try turning off your furnace or source of heat for a few hours in the middle of winter. But why stop there? Try it in the spring or fall and see how long it takes for your house to become uncomfortably cold. You can also try this test by turning off your air conditioning in the heat of the summer and you will likely notice that most buildings are readily prone to overheating due to heat migration through the structure.[iii] Logically, one should assume that no matter where you live:

Your house should be sufficiently insulated to retain enough heat that it does not require an external energy source other than the sun during the average yearly temperature in order to stay reasonably comfortable.[iv]

While this is not always possible due to site restrictions and the extreme nature of some climates, it can be done reasonably well even in extreme climates like that of the Canadian prairies. Based on this test, my guess is that unless your house was built with the energy crisis of the 1970s in mind, most people’s biggest investment (their house) is dependent on cheap and abundant natural gas or electricity in the middle of winter in order to keep it comfortable and prevent its plumbing from freezing. Unfortunately, this means that such a facility will not protect your family or the plumbing in your house in the dead of winter if the worst were to happen.



[i] Source: “IEA World Energy Outlook 2012: U.S. To Be Energy Independent; Subsidies To Fossil Fuels Worth $523 Billion.” The Full. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/12/iea-us-top-oil-producer-fossil-fuel-subsidies_n_2117727.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-business>.

[ii] Yearly average temperatures were calculated by using the average of each month and dividing by 12. Source http://www.theweathernetwork.com/statistics/cl4057180

[iii] Overheating in the summer is also readily caused by un-shaded windows. According to Rob, on a sunny day, an un-shaded window can take in 200btu per hour per square foot. By comparison an R50 wall has a very low heat transfer through it.

[iv] This is an aside that I added on September 12, when it was 5°C and the furnace came on several times. This is a new house that was built in 2007. Rob Dumont’s house, by comparison, doesn’t usually require an external source of heating until late October, when daytime temperatures are usually much lower and overnight temperatures have been dipping much colder for much longer.

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