The energy demand load has shifted in sync with much of Ontario’s workforce from commercial to home offices, prompting calls for suspension of time-of-use (TOU) pricing during the current COVID-19 related upheaval. If anything, it’s expected the province-wide system peak could be lower than normal, but electricity is being consumed in different locations that could mean a substantial cost hit for residential customers.
“We are reviewing all options right now,” reports Sydney Stonier, spokesperson for Greg Rickford, Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines – indicating that a decision is likely coming soon.
“I would absolutely support a move to ‘weekend’ or ‘holiday’ schedule, which would price all electricity off-peak,” says Rob Detta Colli, manager, energy and sustainability, with Crossbridge Condominium Services Ltd.
That would take the price down to a flat 10.1 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) versus the current weekday on-peak rate of 20.8 cents/kWh in the hours from 7 to 11 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. and the mid-peak rate of 14.4 cents/kWh from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Commercial sector advocates are also onside.
“Reduced peak from office buildings should compensate the increased load from the residential side, but the cost of conducting business has now shifted to the residential side,” notes Bala Gnanam, vice president, energy, environment and advocacy, with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Greater Toronto . “Plus, other energy-based activities related to having kids and others home will increase the residential load. So it is only fair that the Ontario Energy Board suspends the TOU and extends the off-peak rate until this is over.”
Yet, a significant reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions provides one encouraging, unforeseen bonus of these unprecedented times. Energy management specialists affirm that it won’t be a simple neutral shift from the commercial to the residential sector. Rather, commercial reductions should far outweigh the uptick residential buildings might cause.
“There will be significant reduction in commercial natural gas use due to ventilation setbacks, but only marginally higher residential use due to slightly less setback than usual,” says Michael Lithgow, manager, energy and climate change, at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “The transportation GHG reduction will be huge, particularly when you factor in air traffic.”
However, Andrew Pride, an energy management specialist who also serves as chair of the standing committee on the National Energy Codes, adds a couple of potential qualifications. “When it comes to heating, homes typically run more efficiently than commercial buildings, but the large volume of space being heated (at higher-than-usual daytime temperatures) in individual homes will be significantly more than a school or office building. Transportation GHGs should be down a lot, although there will be an increase in home deliveries that may somewhat balance out those savings,” he notes.
Tips for full-time occupancies and emptier buildings
Lithgow and Detta Colli offer some tips for building operators who are now contending with full-time occupancy in residential buildings or emptier than usual commercial and public facilities. In the multi-residential sector, Detta Colli advises some adjustments to ventilation controls will likely be required.
“I would consider resetting the variable speed drives on the make-up airs to the setting used during the typical occupied hours of the day,” he says. “Many buildings have programmed drives to take in less air during the middle of the night and in between meal times, and even that lesser amount is usually much more than is needed, but we’re in uncharted waters here.”
Otherwise, Detta Colli doesn’t expect much extra pressure on building systems. “Many buildings deliver cold water with variable speed drives so, if the demand goes up during the day, they’ll just run at a higher horsepower,” he explains.
There are still no firm numbers on residential water consumption itself, but he reports one industry consultant has told him to expect a “noticeable” increase. The hot water share of that extra usage will also have some flow-through added GHG emissions. “We may need to wait for the natural gas consumption data to know the GHG impact,” Detta Colli says.
Turning to the commercial and public facilities sectors, there is a plethora of recommended actions for buildings that are now emptier than is customary.
“Put all ventilation and temperature set-points in unoccupied mode and consider a deeper setback. Power down all unused equipment, computers, printers and lighting. Given this is a longer-than-typical shuttering, look at additional equipment such as network devices, AV equipment, hot water heating and vending machines,” Lithgow instructs. “Consider shutting off the incoming domestic water to some or all of the facility, though the central plant may need to be left on.”
Many of these steps dovetail with the low-cost/no-cost measures that Toronto Hydro’s now cancelled OPSaver program was devised to entrench as common, reflexive operational procedures, notes Scott Rouse, managing partner with the consulting firm, Energy@Work. He suggests facilities management staff could use some of this unexpected downtime to assess and consider ways to improve energy performance.
“With the facility empty, it could present an opportunity to identify the leaks and phantom power use, and squeeze the baseline down as much as possible,” Lithgow concurs.
Addressing new pressures on people and the economy
Nevertheless, even energy efficiency champions are clear that it’s a secondary priority right now. “The primary focus should be for all of us to comply with requests for social distancing and minimize human interaction until concerns surrounding COVID-19 are lifted,” Gnanam reiterates.
Some residential tenants and condo owners could be facing a trifecta of stresses due to loss of income, requirements to self-isolate and increased costs. “Most Ontario families don’t have a choice about staying home and using energy during peak daytime periods,” observes Peter Tabuns, NDP Opposition energy critic in the Ontario legislative assembly.
“This is such a fluid situation. Everything is happening so quickly, but, on the other hand it’s taking time to understand what the various implications are,” reflects Tony Irwin, president and chief executive officer of the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO). “There are more tenants home during the day and there is a lot of uncertainty that’s going to put additional pressure on people. Suspending time of use rates may be one thing that could be done to alleviate that.”
“I hope that some of the funds allocated in association with the declaration of the state of emergency (in Ontario) will be used to provide some relief for increased electricity costs,” Gnanam says.
Meanwhile, Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips confirms that all ministers with economic responsibilities are meeting on a regular basis to discuss responses to arising needs. “The work of that committee includes reaching out on a daily basis to leaders at businesses big and small, including our financial institutions, as well as unions, to ensure we have the latest information and that there is an open line of communication as the government works to address COVID-19’s impact on the economy,” he announced in a statement earlier this week.
A permitted large-group initiative
And there’s still a large-group initiative that people can safely and easily undertake —and enjoy — at home. Earth Hour is set for Saturday, March 28 from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. eastern standard time. While circumstances have somewhat derailed BOMA Toronto’s annual Beyond Earth Hour Challenge for the commercial sector, interest and engagement levels had been rising.
“Obviously, with the recent events, it has slipped a little out of people’s focus, but the times remain the same: Friday, March 27th at 6 p.m. to Monday, March 30th at 6 a.m., with energy usage compared to previous weekends,” reports Rouse, who is an advisor to BOMA Toronto’s effort. “We have over 190 buildings registered for the challenge and there had been communications with the tenants up to last week. However, with the challenges, we are taking a more reactive position and there has not been many additional requests —as expected.”
“All in all, it is difficult to predict energy performance for buildings and transportation in the short term,” Pride submits. “The important part is that everyone should be considerate of their energy use and associated GHG impact. If we all try to conserve, the balance will always be favourable.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.