Electric heat pumps can achieve the same heating costs as conventional gas furnaces, without releasing any direct carbon emissions. If heat pumps are powered with electricity from renewable sources, they can completely eliminate heating emissions from homes and businesses.
Heat pumps are still an emerging technology with a small market share. Here is a breakdown of the space heating methods used in Canadian homes, according to Statistics Canada:
- Conventional forced air furnaces: 51% of homes.
- Hot water or steam boilers with radiators: 8% of homes.
- Electric heat pumps: 6% of homes.
- Electric radiant heaters: 4% of homes.
- Heating stoves: 2% of homes.
- Other heating methods: The remaining 4% of homes.
In this article, we will analyze the carbon footprint of the two most common heating methods in Canada: gas furnaces and electric baseboard heaters. We will also estimate the total emissions that could be avoided with a complete switch to heat pumps powered by renewable electricity.
Note that although we touch on the carbon tax, this guide is not meant to advocate for or against it, but we do attempt to analyze how it may factor into overall heating costs. The carbon tax itself may change at any time and is actively being debated in parliament.
Understanding the Carbon Footprint of Heating Fuels
|Fossil Fuel||Emissions per Unit of Volume||Emissions per Million BTU|
|Propane (LPG)||5.75 kg CO2 per gallon||62.88 kg CO2 per million BTU|
|Home Heating Fuel (Distillate Fuel Oil)||10.19 kg CO2 per gallon||74.14 kg CO2 per million BTU|
|Kerosene||9.88 kg CO2 per gallon||73.19 kg CO2 per million BTU|
|Natural Gas||54.87 kg CO2 per thousand cubic feet||52.91 kg CO2 per million BTU|
Natural gas is the most common heating fuel in the US and Canada. There are also homes that use other fuels such as heating oil or propane (LPG), but natural gas is the most popular option by far. Natural gas has a lower carbon footprint than other fossil fuels, but its environmental impact is still significant.
The US Energy Information Administration provides a detailed comparison of the carbon dioxide emissions released by different heating fuels:
As you can see in the table above, natural gas produces 15.6% less emissions than propane and 28.6% less emissions than fuel oil. However, none of these energy sources can provide clean heating.
The carbon emissions associated with electricity usage vary depending on how it is generated. Renewable technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines have an initial carbon footprint associated with raw materials extraction, equipment production, shipping and installation. However, the emissions of these generation systems drop to nearly zero once they are installed and operational.
On the other hand, power plants running with fossil fuels are a constant source of emissions:
- Coal = 1,025 g CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) generated
- Natural Gas = 440 g CO2 per kWh
- Petroleum = 1,107 g CO2 per kWh
Canada uses a mix of renewable and non-renewable electricity sources, which means the emissions per kWh vary by source. Considering all energy sources used, the Canadian power grid has an average emissions intensity of 110 g of CO2 equivalent per kWh. This value was calculated by the Canada Energy Regulator (CER).
Using the fossil fuel emission factors from the table above and the emissions intensity of the Canadian power grid, we can estimate the annual carbon footprint of different home heating methods. We can also determine the potential emissions that could be avoided by switching to heat pumps with renewable electricity.
Annual Carbon Emissions of Canadian Homes with a Gas Furnaces
You can find furnaces designed for different types of fuels, and even electric furnaces. However, we will focus on gas furnaces in this analysis, since they are the most common type by far.
- According to the Canadian Gas Association (CGA), the average home uses 2,385 cubic meters of natural gas per year.
- Considering the climate variations across Canada, the average gas consumption of homes can range from 1,900 to 3,100 cubic meters.
Natural gas has an emissions intensity of 54.87 kg CO2 per thousand cubic feet, which is equivalent to 1.9377 kg CO2 per cubic meter. Here are the estimated emissions of a typical Canadian home, based on its gas consumption:
|Annual Gas Consumption||Annual CO2 Emissions|
|1,900 cubic meters (low range)||3,682 kg CO2|
|2,385 cubic meters (average)||4,621 kg CO2|
|3,100 cubic meters (high range)||6,007 kg CO2|
These figures refer to total gas consumption in Canadian homes, not only the consumption associated with space heating. However, space and water heating accounts for over 90% of natural gas usage in cold climate zones such as Canada and the northeast US states. By using electric heat pumps for both functions, the annual gas consumption of a typical home can be reduced by over 90%.
In many cases, natural gas furnaces and electric heat pumps have similar operating costs. However, Canada introduced the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA) in 2018, which applies a carbon pollution price per tonne of CO2. This charge will gradually increase the cost of gas heating during the following years, making heat pumps a more attractive option.
The carbon pollution price was first CA$20 per tonne of CO2, but it will gradually increase to CA$170 per tonne by 2030. Here is the Carbon Pollution Price Schedule for 2023 – 2030:
|(CA$ per tonne of CO2)||$65||$80||$95||$110||$125||$140||$155||$170|
The Government of Canada also publishes carbon pollution prices by fuel, based on their environmental impact. Here are the carbon prices per cubic meter of natural gas for the period between 2023 and 2030:
|Carbon Pollution Price (CA$ per cubic meter of natural gas)||0.1239||0.1525||0.1811||0.2097||0.2383||0.2669||0.2954||0.3240|
Here is the estimated carbon charge for homes using natural gas, considering the carbon pollution prices published for 2023 and 2030:
|Gas Consumption||Annual Emissions||2023 Carbon Price||2030 Carbon Price|
|1,900 cubic meters||3.682 tonnes CO2||CA$235.41||CA$615.60|
|2,385 cubic meters||4.621 tonnes CO2||CA$295.50||CA$772.74|
|3,100 cubic meters||6.007 tonnes CO2||CA$384.09||CA$1,004.40|
Due to the carbon pollution price, using a gas furnace will become much more expensive than using a fully electric heat pump. You can save thousands of dollars by switching to a renewable heating system before the carbon price per tonne reaches higher levels.
Upgrading from Gas Furnaces to Electric Heat Pumps: Avoided Emissions
Replacing all the residential gas furnaces used in Canada with fully-electric heat pumps is a complex task that would require major investments. However, the carbon emissions that could be avoided are considerable.
To estimate the total emissions that could be saved with complete switch to heat pumps powered by renewable energy, we can use the following figures from Statistics Canada:
- The 2022 edition of Canada at a Glance reported 15,067,800 homes.
- 47% of Canadian homes use natural gas as their main heating fuel.
The average gas consumption of a Canadian home is 2,385 cubic meters per year. Assuming that 70% of this amount is used for space heating, we get 1,670 cubic meters per year. Using the emissions intensity of natural gas (1.9377 kg CO2 per cubic meter), we can estimate the total impact that could be avoided.
- Estimated number of homes with gas heating (47%) = 7,081,866
- Gas consumption for space heating, per home = 1,670 cubic meters
- Total gas consumption for space heating = 11.8 billion cubic meters
- Potential emissions avoided with heat pumps = 22.9 billion kg of CO2
This is a broad estimate with general figures from Statistics Canada and other sources, but it shows the carbon footprint that could be avoided with heat pumps. The estimated emissions avoided could exceed 22.9 billion kg of CO2 per year, or 22.9 megatonnes per year.
The outlook is even more promising if we also consider the emissions that could be avoided by using heat pumps for water heating.
- Assuming that space and water heating represent 95% of residential gas usage, we get 2,266 cubic meters per year in a typical home.
- If the calculations above are repeated with this figure, the potential emissions avoided increase to 31.1 megatonnes of CO2 per year.
- On average, each Canadian generates 15.22 tonnes of CO2 per year. The potential emissions that could be avoided by heat pumps are equivalent to the carbon footprint of two million Canadians.
To put these numbers into perspective, consider that one megatonne of avoided emissions is equivalent to planting 45.9 million trees or removing 217,391 cars from the road. Therefore, the 31.1 megatonnes of emissions that could be avoided by heat pumps have the same benefit as planting 1.43 billion trees or removing 6.76 million cars from the road.
Even if heat pumps use grid power, they have a much lower carbon footprint than gas furnaces. If you use a gas furnace that consumes 1,670 cubic meters per year, the resulting emissions are around 3,236 kg of CO2. If you use a heat pump that achieves the same heating output with 5,000 kWh, the resulting emissions are only 550 kg of CO2 (based on Canada’s emissions factor for grid electricity = 110 g CO2 per kWh).
When comparing a heat pump with a furnace using heating oil or LPG, the potential emissions that can be avoided are even higher. LPG produces 18.8% more emissions than natural gas per BTU of energy, while heating oil produces 40.1% more emissions.
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Annual Emissions of Canadian Homes with Electric Baseboard Heaters
Electric baseboard heaters are the second most popular heating systems in Canadian homes, after forced air furnaces. CarbonSwitch estimated that a 2,000 square feet home using electric baseboard heaters can expect to use around 10,000 kWh per year on heating only. In the coldest climate regions, this figure can reach up to 15,000 kWh.
- Considering the emissions intensity of 110 g CO2 per kWh reported by the Canada Energy Regulator, 10,000 kWh would generate 1,100 kg of CO2.
- Baseboard heaters have a much lower carbon footprint than gas furnaces, but they can have a high running cost.
In the case of electricity, the carbon pollution price is applied to the fuels used for power generation, which means there is no carbon price per kilowatt-hour. However, the carbon pollution price can be expected to have an impact on electric tariffs, since Canada generates 19.3% of its electricity with fossil fuels.
Although your electricity consumption is not directly affected by carbon pollution prices, we can estimate the impact based on the carbon prices per tonne of CO2 emissions.
|Year||Carbon Pollution Price per Tonne of CO2||Estimated Impact on the Cost of 10,000 kWh (1.10 tonnes of CO2)|
Since Canada generates less than 20% of its electricity from fossil fuels, the Carbon Pollution Price has a relatively small impact on electricity costs.
Upgrading from Baseboard Heaters to Heat Pumps: Avoided Emissions
Since Canada’s power grid has a large percentage of renewable energy, the emissions associated with electricity consumption are relatively low. If you use baseboard heaters that consume 15,000 kWh/year, you are generating 1,650 kg of CO2.
- An electric heat pump with a coefficient of performance (COP) of 3.0 can deliver 3 kWh of heat for every kWh of electricity consumed. On the other hand, electric baseboard heaters operate at a 1:1 ratio.
- A heat pump with a COP of 3.0 can deliver 15,000 kWh of heat with an electricity consumption of only 5,000 kWh.
- Using the emissions factor of 110 g CO2 per kWh, a heat pump using 5,000 kWh per year produces 550 kg of CO2.
When comparing gas furnaces and heat pumps, their operating costs tend to be similar. However, heat pumps have a much lower operating cost than baseboard heaters and other resistance heating systems.
Excluding the territories with higher energy prices, Canada has an average electric tariff of 15.5 cents/kWh. An electric baseboard heater using 15,000 kWh per year has an operating cost of CA$2,325. On the other hand, an energy-efficient heat pump using 5,000 kWh per year has an operating cost of only CA$775.