Halifax: Heritage, Height, and Heating

During the final few months of 2007, a series of public meetings were held in and around Halifax to discuss HRM by Design, Halifax Regional Municipality’s proposed plan for the Regional Centre on the Halifax peninsula. The plan, based in part upon the belief that Halifax is about to become a major financial centre, calls for the construction of more high-rise office and residential towers, radically altering the downtown core. Opponents of the plan argue that the heights of the proposed buildings are not appropriate and will continue to erode Halifax’s remaining built heritage. Not surprisingly, the plan’s proponents claim that the plan will make Halifax a great city, recognizing both the city’s heritage and the need for building height.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, many cities around the world went through the “heritage versus height” argument, with height winning out in most cases. But this is the twenty-first century and times are changing rapidly—planners and politicians need to look beyond the “heritage versus height” debate and ask, “How will our buildings be heated?”

This is no idle question. In Nova Scotia, space heating is responsible for about 61 percent of the residential sector’s and 54 percent of the commercial sector’s energy consumption—increasing to 84 percent and 63 percent, respectively, when water heating is included. In fact, space and water heating in these two sectors is responsible for about 27 percent of Nova Scotia’s end-use energy consumption (second only to transportation at 42 percent).

With the exception of the two oil “shocks” in the 1970s and the first Gulf war in 1990, the cost of energy was relatively stable and affordable throughout most of the western world during the post-World War II era. As such, the question of how a building was heated was seldom, if ever, an issue. However, from 1999 onwards, energy costs have increased substantially—for example, the cost of heating oil in the United States rose almost fourfold between January 1999 and December 2007.

Since the majority of buildings in Nova Scotia are heated with imported fuel oil, most Nova Scotians are not immune from rising energy costs (even electric heating relies on imported coal, petcoke, and oil). As the price of fuel oil approaches a dollar-a-litre, some Nova Scotians are calling on the provincial government to increase the level of home heating fuel rebate, from the current provincial portion of the HST to the entire HST.

The record royalties from the Sable natural gas project may tempt the provincial government to reduce home heating taxes to zero; however, this will not stop the world price of oil from increasing. And if the government were to cover the cost of the HST, the next “logical” step would be to subsidize the cost of heating fuel to offset any further price increases. These ideas may be great election gimmicks, but they are lousy energy policy.

The existing government energy programs dealing with the residential sector focus on energy reduction—encouraging new home builders and existing home owners to meet various EnerGuide standards. The programs do not deal with replacing imported energy sources for heating with ones that are more secure, domestic, and preferably renewable.

Anyone who walks into a room with a south-facing window on a sunny mid-winter day knows that Nova Scotia possesses an energy source that meets these criteria. Surprising as it may seem, Nova Scotia receives sufficient solar energy to meet the space and water heating needs of properly constructed residential and commercial buildings; the problem is, most of it comes at the wrong time of year.

Fortunately, solar energy can be captured using solar thermal panels and stored as heat for subsequent use. Diurnal systems capture the energy and make it available for limited periods, typically a day or so. On the other hand, in seasonal storage systems, solar energy is captured and stored as heat in impervious rock formations several hundred metres underground throughout the year; the energy can be extracted from the underground storage for space and water heating when needed.

The costs associated with building seasonal storage systems mean they usually require a significant heating load; for example, a number of residential buildings or a multi-storey office or residential tower. Our research suggests that if a building in Halifax were to meet all its heating requirements with solar seasonal storage, its roof would need to be covered with south-facing solar thermal panels and a maximum height of between four and six storeys.

Undoubtedly, the suggestion that the maximum height of new buildings in Halifax should not exceed six storeys and should take advantage of solar energy will be considered unacceptable by many planners, politicians, and developers. Regardless, before any new building project proceeds in HRM, its proponents should be required to explain how the building will be heated and where the energy for heating will come from for the life of the building. Buildings need not rely on solar energy (there are other secure energy options available); however, those designed to rely on energy sources that are from insecure suppliers, prone to price instability or in decline cannot be considered habitable and should not be granted a building permit.

Unlike the province (which is showing little leadership on improving Nova Scotia’s energy security), HRM is obliged to address the energy issue, as the fifth principle of HRM’s Region Plan states, “Manages development to make the most effective use of land, energy, infrastructure, public services and facilities and considers healthy lifestyles.”

Published: Chronicle-Herald - 19 January 2008