A combined heating technology and house design from a British Columbia-based company might hold solutions to some of the lingering housing needs in the NWT.
MLAs watched a virtual seminar from ElectroMotion Energy CEO Jai Zachary during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment March 30.
Speaking from Summerland, B.C., Zachary presented the Revolution Northern Housing Platform: a $350,000 home built from pre-made panels equipped with a specialized heating unit. The company has one complete house that functions as a demonstration model in Summerland.
The Revolution unit includes a heat pump and a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that replaces a conventional furnace. It runs off of natural gas, propane or diesel – if the latter is the only option in a community.
Retaining lost heat
What sets the Revolution apart, Zachary explained, is how well it captures the heat produced in electricity generation.
“More than two-thirds of all the fuel used to generate power is lost as heat,” he said of existing structures, citing the United States Department of Energy. “So using Paulatuk as an example, we calculated that over the last 20 years enough heat has gone into the atmosphere to melt an iceberg the same size that sunk the Titanic.”
The Revolution grabs the thermal energy to heat the home and heat water. It also generates six kW of electricity as a byproduct that goes back into the power grid for use by other homes in the community.
The system, in turn, significantly reduces energy costs compared to a conventional home. By giving back electricity, it offers even more savings.
Ventilation system prevents mould
The housing system aims to solve another problem that plagues many Arctic homes: mould growth.
Its ventilation system minimizes temperature differences inside a room, such as in the centre compared to beside a window due to thermal differences.
“You can go to the corner or to a wall and the temperature will be the same,” Zachary said. “It gives a more comfortable feeling. It prevents moulds from growing because we can control moisture in the air. We also figured out a way to sterilize the air using ultraviolet-C (radiation). The air is circulated, refreshed and sterilized.”
The tanks of the ventilation system and its plumbing are located inside the house to prevent them from freezing.
The housing system avoids the “siloed” style of conventional homes where aspects such as energy, the electrical grid and the house itself are separate.
“We approach it as a complete, holistic life cycle approach that will have these benefits that we like to call revolutionary,” Zachary said.
Housing easier to build with fewer labourers
A third solution the inclusive housing units provide is faster construction using fewer workers.
The structural insulated panels (SIPs) that make up the homes can be transported to a community site by plane, barge or truck and put together on site.
The simple design of the homes mean they require few skilled tradespeople or heavy machinery to construct, Zachary said, adding that the houses can be assembled in just one week by local people.
ElectroMotion aims to build a network of people who worked on constructing the homes to go to other communities when they build Revolution houses and “train the trainers.”
“(Based on) our analysis and from what we’ve been told, there’s a significant housing shortage (and) many thousands of homes are required up North. And really, the long-term plan is to have our system as a cookie cutter process in different communities,” he said.
Individuals could be trained to maintain and service the homes instead of company personnel having to go to the communities.
Price fluctuates according to fuel source
In an interview with NNSL Media after the seminar, Zachary said the $350,000 baseline cost for one combined Revolution housing unit would be higher if powered by diesel.
Purchasing only the unit and not the home is possible for retrofitting an existing house, with a unit geared for natural gas costing $29,900 and for diesel about $39,950.
The price could be reduced further if a community opted to buy several units at once, and the expense of transporting the hardware and construction materials to remote communities would be factored into the total cost, he added.
“We’ve had discussions with the NWT Housing Corporation about this. We’re not trying to make money off transportation costs,” Zachary said. “From what I understand, there are homes quoted through RFPs (requests for proposals) for over $1 million, which is mind-numbing. If we can coordinate and have a consistent in-flow of homes, we can coordinate costs.”
Demonstration needed in North: MLAs
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said the Summerland demonstration house is a long way from the communities of the NWT, and a trial unit in a Northern environment would be ideal to learn about its actual capabilities.
“(We need to) collect some cost data around the capital cost up front and then the operations and maintenance over time versus a traditional housing unit because I think that’s what we need to get our hands on to convince others that this is something worth trying,” he said.
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said the homes and the price sound good but she would also need to see a working demonstration unit in the North before she can commit to it.
“Any time that you can create a system where you are in control of all the parts, you’re able to make it more efficient,” she said. “Often in the North it seems we want to reinvent the wheel (with housing). Why don’t we just have cookie-cutter type buildings we can just bring up and erect? I like this because it’s moving towards that a little more. We need to stop having grandiose plans and just have some units on the ground.”
In response to a question from Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland about the lifespan of the housing system, Zachary said the structure itself is designed to last 50-60 years.
Potential invasion by pests like termites are deterred because the SIP panels are made of either resin-based oriented strand board (OSB) or fibreglass.
Still more efficient than diesel plant
Dehcho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge expressed some skepticism of the Revolution unit, saying he doubts the power companies in the NWT would “entertain the idea” of excess power going back into the grid.
He also wondered how environmentally friendly the units are if they can be powered by diesel and emit greenhouse gases.
Zachary acknowledged that the company prefers to power the Revolution device with natural gas or propane but would use diesel if that is the only fuel available in a community. However, he said the unit is still more efficient than a typical diesel plant, which loses most of its energy through heat.
“Yes, the Revolution would use diesel but it’s only going to use diesel when you need heat. That adds a three-to-one advantage of reducing the amount of diesel consumption at the power station that’s in the community,” Zachary said.
Rapid housing solution
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson, who chaired the committee meeting, said he has been in contact with Zachary for several years and is interested in the Revolution homes for his Arctic constituents.
“We’re waiting for units and we just don’t see them coming quickly enough,” Jacobson said. “And we have young families that need units. And I think the biggest thing for me is the time frame (Revolution) units could be built in. It’s the ‘build it and they will come’ model.”
Jacobson said he has put Zachary in contact with the community corporations in his riding so they could possibly form a partnership to begin building Revolution units.
Though no one is currently living in the company’s Revolution demonstration home in Summerland, Zachary said ElectroMotion has spoken with other communities in the province about potentially building thousands of units over the next few years.