Governments are trying to cut down on the greenhouse emissions that come from keeping northern Ontario homes warm through the winter.
And they see heat pumps as the way to do it.
This week, the federal government unveiled a program offering $5,000 dollars for those who switch from an oil furnace to a electric heat pump.
Valerie McIntyre of Manitoulin Island would love to get off of heating oil.
She says it’s partly to help the environment and war-torn oil-producing countries, but also because it’s burning up a lot more of her household budget these days.
“We’d spend $800 to a $1,000 in heat and then last year we spent two thousand in heat,” said McIntyre, who lives on the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation.
“And I know a lot of people are spending double that.”
She would love to put in a geothermal system, but the $25,000 cost is too much and she’s not sure a heat pump, which can run upwards of $10,000, would be worth it.
The Ontario government is also trying to get people to put in heat pumps, offering up to $4,500 in select cities, including Sault Ste. Marie.
Steve Filioglou, the comfort advisor at DNM Heating and Cooling, says it’s only for people with a natural gas furnace and they need a smart thermostat so Enbridge can monitor how well the two systems are working together.
“Our phones have been ringing off the hook getting quotes and educating customers,” he said, adding that there are 250 grants available under this program in the Sault and his company has already installed 141.
“Your helping with your carbon footprint, too right? I think a lot of people are seeing how the world is shifting right now.”
At Superior Home Comfort in Sault Ste. Marie, manager Nick Huizing says there’s been a lot of interest in heat pumps, but not a lot of sales.
He’s been in the home heating business for 45 years and remembers when the government was offering grants for people in Sault Ste. Marie to move from heating oil to natural gas, which only came to the city in the 1970s.
“Whether it’s going to be successful or not, we’ll have to see. Because the price of energy right now, whether it be natural gas, propane, oil or electricity, are all high and they’re increasing. But I think the big thing is to give people options,” he said.
Like many people in rural areas outside of northern Ontario cities, natural gas isn’t an option for Huizing.
So he warms his home with a propane furnace, wood stove and a heat pump, all monitored with a thermostat that tells him when is best to use which heat.
While there are growing calls to move away from natural gas, which is still seen as the gold standard for home heating in most of the north, Huizing doesn’t see it happening.
“Do we really save by getting off of natural gas? I don’t think so. The electricity grid in Ontario, it’s got a maximum it can produce,” he said.
Electric heat has long been seen as one of the most expensive way to stay warm through the winter, but Martin Kegel, a project lead with Natural Resources Canada, says the heat pump can change that.
He says there have been “significant” advancements in how well they work, especially in the extreme cold and they are much more efficient than traditional electric baseboards.
“Really you’re upgrading the energy that’s available in your surrounding air,” Kegal said.
“There are limitations in terms of how low you can go. Minus 35, minus 40 is where you might start seeing limitations and you’d have to use a different heating system as your backup source.”
And even if home owners need to have a second source of heat, Kegel estimates that the heat pump grants the federal government is offering could save people as much as $3,000 per year.
But while some want to shift away from natural gas, there are parts of the northern Ontario that have been trying to get it for decades.
Daryl Skwarchinski is the president of North Shore Natural Gas, a group formed by the five small towns of Marathon, Terrace Bay, Schreiber, Manitouwadge and Wawa.
It is trying to convince the province to fund a multi-million dollar plan to truck in natural gas to compressor stations in each town, saving people thousands of dollars currently spent on propane or hydro.
They were rejected for $20 million in funding last year, but are hoping to re-apply in 2023.
“If you’re a municipality that has natural gas, you don’t even think about it,” said Skwarchinski, who is also the chief administrative officer of Marathon.
“We still don’t have a lot of alternatives. It would probably be a missed mark if natural gas wasn’t considered to be a fairly sound solution for non-pipeline communities.”