In a close vote, Yellowknife city councillors chose to remove an energy efficiency standard central to the municipality’s building requirements for homes.
The EnerGuide 80 rating has been present in Yellowknife’s building bylaw since 2010 but is being deprecated at a federal level. Data suggests the rating had a measurably positive impact on the standard of homes built in the city, but builders were not forced to achieve the rating and could elect to ignore it if they wished.
Yellowknife has been late to address the replacement of EnerGuide 80 with new federal standards. As a result, councillors have been arguing over two main options: drop EnerGuide 80 completely and replace it with a successor at a future date to be determined, or keep it in place until a successor can be identified – even if using the rating becomes tricky once federal support is withdrawn.
Following weeks of debate and more than an hour of further discussion at two separate meetings on Monday, four councillors – Niels Konge, Rommel Silverio, Steve Payne, and Rebecca Alty – voted to drop the standard entirely with no immediate replacement, other than an evaluation system whereby homes receive a sticker so prospective buyers know the building’s energy efficiency data.
Mayor Mark Heyck joined Linda Bussey and Julian Morse in opposing that action and trying to keep the standard in place, while Adrian Bell – who had expressed support for dropping the standard – chaired the vote in his role as deputy mayor, at Heyck’s request.
‘Drop right to the bottom’
Councillors in favour of dropping the standard had argued it was irrelevant and unenforceable as the federal government slowly withdrew support. Alty, in particular, intimated on several occasions the standard would be an unusable and significant obstacle to developers come January 2019, after federal support terminates.
That view was challenged by Mayor Heyck, and by Andrew Robinson of Alternatives North – an energy consultant who has also built homes in the city – who presented to councillors at length.
“The City was in a position of leadership. It’s now middle-of-the-pack, and if you go to no energy standard you’ll drop right to the bottom,” Robinson cautioned. “That’s a very unusual thing to do with a building code.
“Leaving a gap is unfair to people like myself who’ve already built a home like that, and it’s also going to go backward in terms of education of builders and what’s expected of them.
“It’s not that hard to find a way to continue to implement EnerGuide 80 while you switch software,” added Robinson, former director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, which works closely with energy standards.
Robinson forecast dropping the standard would create a “bump in the market” as the cost of building homes, and their subsequent value, adjust to a regime without energy efficiency standards. “That’s the reason why cities and communities don’t normally play with the building codes like this,” he said.
‘We have abandoned what we built up’
Mayor Heyck, speaking later in the same meeting, said: “The crisis that has been portrayed is really nothing of the sort. There are standards we can continue to rely on in the interim and it would be much better to say we have got this standard, we are working on it, we are going to engage with industry, and then we are going to bring out a new standard.
“I think there’s a real danger that if we simply drop the standard, we may never come back to it. The quality of housing stock in Yellowknife has increased dramatically in the last eight years.
“I present at conferences and venues right across the country about what Yellowknife is doing for energy efficiency. I’m saddened, potentially, to say I might have to inform the audience that we have abandoned what we built up over all these many years.”
Councillor Shauna Morgan, who previously protested that a community energy planning committee’s recommendations regarding the energy standard had been entirely ignored by council, was on the land near Gameti and could not join the meeting.
Through a statement read out by Heyck, Morgan said: “I believe the minimum standard at least sends a clear signal of the City’s expectation.
“Dropping the standard pits those who worked hard to meet the standard in the past, and those expected to meet a better standard in the future, against those who will take advantage of the gap and build however they want over the next couple of seasons.”
‘We need to do this’
It is not clear when the City will now introduce a replacement energy standard, nor what that standard will be, nor the timeframe for the introduction of a temporary evaluation system to plug the gap.
“I think we need to do this to move forward,” said Councillor Niels Konge, a building developer, who previously said leaving EnerGuide 80 in place would be unworkable given the withdrawal of federal support and the year-plus timelines involved in building a home.
At Monday’s lunchtime meeting of Yellowknife’s municipal services committee, which also involves all councillors, the extent to which some councillors were voting on something they did not fully understand was apparent.
“I have to admit I’ve been trying to keep on top of this energy efficiency issue,” said Councillor Payne, who subsequently voted to drop the standard. “It’s pretty confusing for someone who doesn’t have a background in it.”
Councillor Bell, trying to reconcile differing statistics relating to how successful the energy standard had been, complained: “We’re having a discussion but not everybody has the same information.”
In particular, councillors and even administration voiced frustration that the City was only now addressing the issue, mere months before the energy standard in question is phased out.
“One of the reasons we brought forward the initial amendment in early March was in anticipation of the 2018 construction season, and to get as many people as we could through the door as they were doing their permits,” said Nalini Naidoo, the City’s planning head.
“That’s why we did it earlier in the year. Why did it take us so long to do it in the first place? That’s a great question.
“We are working as fast as we can. Most of the people in the department have only been here for maybe 11 months.”
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, the City’s senior administrator, said she could not explain why officials had not raised the issue several years earlier, when the federal government first announced its planned changes.
“We are not really in a position to answer what was the thought of administration at the time. In an ideal world this would have been dealt with at the time,” she said.
“We should have been having this conversation in 2015, not 2018 when we are down to the wire,” said Councillor Morse. “We’re getting new information with every passing minute.”
The depth of disagreement over the issue’s basics was illustrated by Alty’s evening statement that keeping the energy standard in place would be unworkable – which seemed fully at odds with the views of energy consultant Robinson barely an hour earlier.
“The program won’t be available to use as of January 1, 2019. We can keep the term in the bylaw but as of January 1, no new plans will be able to be in compliance with that bylaw,” said Alty.
Robinson, however, said: “You can keep the EnerGuide 80 standard for now. The sky is not going to fall.
“The work is not as complicated as people have been making out. It can be done in a couple of months.”
An alternative in which a consultation would have taken place over the next few months, with the aim of developing and including a new standard by the fall, was rejected. Alty said the timeline proposed for that consultation was not realistic.
Fighting to keep the energy standard, Morse told colleagues: “Not one resident has supported removing this wording from the bylaw. I have not heard from a single resident that supports removing it.
“That speaks loud and clear to me that Yellowknifers are in support of the standard.”