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Large Buildings Are Using Less Energy. Why Are Their Emissions Going Up?

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Owners of Ontario’s biggest buildings are taking important steps to reduce their energy use. But new data shows their climate pollution will continue rising until the province scales back the electricity it produces from gas, rather than increasing it.

Buildings are the largest source of emissions in the GTHA. Decarbonizing the sector is one of the essential steps on the road to a net-zero economy. And TAF’s analysis of 1,620 buildings from Ontario’s Energy and Water Reporting and Benchmarking (ERWB) datasets shows that many building owners are starting to do their part. Between 2019 and 2022, the average weather normalized energy use intensity of the province’s biggest buildings decreased by 3.7%. And we saw that over 60% of these building saw a 14% decrease, on average, in energy use.

This is a good start – energy efficiency improvements are beginning to move the needle. But we found that even as many of our biggest buildings consumed less energy, their emissions rose 4% over the same period.

Retrofitting the entire building stock is not an easy task, and we’re missing the opportunity to turn those hard-won energy savings into emission reductions. As the provincial government brings more gas onto the system, our grid is getting dirtier. Its carbon intensity—a measure of the climate pollution it emits for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it generates—increased by a staggering 61% between 2019 and 2022.

Energy efficiency and conservation measures play an essential role in reducing building emissions, and more owners and operators are taking action. And the recent decision by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) to add 5,000 MW of new wind, solar and other renewable energy to the grid is another step in the right direction.

But our EWRB analysis shows the real-world impacts of using gas-fired electricity. Energy efficiency efforts will continue to be undermined as the province continues ramping up the use of gas generators. Gas plants also create health hazards in surrounding communities, and they’re more expensive in Ontario (and elsewhere) than solar and wind farms with battery storage.

TAF recommends the following measures to enable grid decarbonization:

  • The Federal government should move forward with its proposed Clean Electricity Regulations, sending a clear regulatory signal that gas-fired generation needs to be phased down rather than up.
  • Ontario should boost its procurement targets for non-emitting generation, consistent with Canada’s international commitment to triple renewables by 2030
  • Ontario should double the budget for electricity efficiency programs under the forthcoming Post 2024 Conservation and Demand Management Framework.

Our analysis shows how urgent it is for the province to phase out gas plant use in favour of energy efficiency and non-emitting distributed energy resources (DERs) that deliver reliable electricity supplies where we need them most. Cities across the GTHA are trying their best to meet their climate targets. It’s time for regulators to join them.
 
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