How British Columbia's buildings can meet sustainability requirements


Rising electricity demand threatens grid capacity and makes energy efficiency crucial

Commercial building owners across Canada are under increasing pressure to reduce the carbon emissions of their assets. Regulations are piling up, shareholders are keeping a close eye on annual reporting and stakeholders want changes that advance climate protection.

While the message is clear that we need to decarbonize our buildings, we should do so in a way that reduces buildings' energy consumption, as buildings, data centers, electric vehicles and more place increasing demands on our electrical grid.

May 1 marked the first birthday of the British Columbia Zero Carbon Step Code, which reinforces the electrification goals set out in the BC Energy Step Code and the federal government's 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan.

Elsewhere, the Canadian Sustainability Standards Board released its draft standards for mandatory sustainability reporting for companies in Canada in March this year. These are based on the standards published by the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) in 2023, according to which affected companies must disclose their greenhouse gas emissions in the areas of Scope 1, 2 and 3. This means that decarbonization will not be a “nice-to-have” option, but rather a must-have for commercial building owners.

However, the way forward is not clear. Last year's record-breaking summer temperatures and subsequent drought meant BC Hydro had to import 10,000 gigawatt-hours, equivalent to about 20 per cent of the province's energy needs. And while the utility is taking a multi-pronged approach to strengthening the grid against rising demand and extreme weather, more needs to be done to strengthen resilience to future conditions.

As electricity demand increases and our supply has to work harder to keep up, passive house design for buildings offers a proven guide to both reducing the load on the grid and protecting residents from the risk of a power interruption.

Energy efficiency remains the key. Finding ways to make our buildings – new and old – more efficient reduces strain on the electric grid and supports the broader transition away from fossil fuels.

The Passive House standard is one of the best ways to create a low-carbon, highly resilient building. These buildings feature a super-insulated envelope and are designed to be passively heated by the sun. They require 90 percent less heat than typical existing buildings and only small amounts of electricity. Super insulation stores the sun's heat in its structure and other materials, acting as a thermal battery.

This thermal battery allows building owners to adjust the time of day that heating and cooling energy is fed into the building, shifting electricity consumption to off-peak times. As network demand increases and time-of-day charges normalize, this demand-shifting ability becomes increasingly valuable.

Owners and operators can protect residents from many hazards by designing buildings with passive survivability, allowing them to provide safe shelter even during a power outage. This can include designing buildings to let in light and heat when needed, with strategic shading and orientation to keep out the sun during the hottest part of the day and year.

Municipalities in British Columbia recognize the benefits of building to this standard, and many public buildings – such as fire halls, public housing and schools – comply with it. Not only are these buildings resilient to extreme heat and cold and power outages, but they are also resistant to wildfire smoke thanks to their tight construction and high-quality ventilation and air filtration.

Energy efficiency practices are at the interface between climate protection and building resilience. Strategies that we previously thought of as just energy measures can benefit from this resilience perspective.

The construction industry has responded well to calls for climate action and the need to reduce operational emissions. As part of the industry, we are proud of this growing momentum. But as an industry, we also need to work to make buildings resilient to both climate change and the transition to electrification. The good news is that we have the tools and know-how to do just that.

Stuart Hood is vice president of institutions at Introba; Kevin Welsh is Associate Principal for Sustainability and Robin Hawker is Associate Principal for Climate Resilience at the company.