For this remote First Nation, installing heat pumps is worth the effort

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This week:

  • For this remote First Nation, installing heat pumps is worth the effort
  • The recyclability of EV batteries
  • Readers provide decluttering tips that don’t rely on landfill

For this remote First Nation, installing heat pumps is worth the effort

(Submitted by Q̓átuw̓as Brown)

What On Earth54:02Why flooding in Indigenous communities is a climate justice issue

A tale of two First Nations and how the reserve system forced them onto flood plains; Three Ontarians weigh in on their provincial election; And how the Heiltsuk First Nation’s speedy switch to heat pumps is securing its energy future

A cold breeze smelling of salt and sea life sweeps through the town of Bella Bella, on Campbell Island, off the central coast of British Columbia.

Members of the Heiltsuk Nation have been living on this breathtaking land for at least 9,000 years. But in recent years, the community’s reliance on fossil fuels to heat their homes has had devastating consequences. 

In 2016, an oil spill caused by a barge that ran aground dumped more than 110,000 litres of petroleum products into Gales Creek. Sixty per cent of the community’s clam beds and fish stocks were destroyed, jeopardizing the community’s primary livelihood.

In response, the Heiltsuk Nation — which has roughly 2,400 members — began working on a climate action plan to get off fossil fuels.

“Our whole plan is to realign with our ancestral laws, to realign who we are as Heiltsuk people with Earth and with our unique place in the world,” Q̓átuw̓as Brown, the communications manager of the Haíɫzaqv Climate Action Plan, told What On Earth.

The plan, which aims to achieve net-zero emissions within a decade and eventually reduce emissions by 24,000 tonnes a year, recently won Community of the Year from Clean Energy BC. The award recognizes the best and most ambitious sustainable energy strategy of any jurisdiction in British Columbia. 

For Brown, getting off fossil fuels is about re-establishing the community’s sovereignty over its energy and land. One way the community is achieving this is through the installation of heat pumps

A heat pump uses electricity to pull heat out of the air. In the winter, it pulls warm air inside to heat your home; in the summer, it acts like an air conditioner, moving warm air out while circulating cool air inside. The process uses refrigerants for the conversion, much like your refrigerator.

When Brown spoke with What On Earth host Laura Lynch in January 2021, her community had installed 129 heat pumps. Now, in partnership with Ecotrust Canada, they have secured $6.6 million from several levels of government to install enough heat pumps for every member of the community who wants one. Ecotrust is also working with three other Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island to secure funding for heat pumps.

By the end of 2022, if all goes as planned, 95 per cent of community homes in Bella Bella will have a heat pump. 

Currently, those without heat pumps rely on oil furnaces. Fuel is brought in by barge. Plus, many of those furnaces are old and inefficient.

Given the remote location and size of Bella Bella, pulling together the funding, resources and experts needed to install this many heat pumps demonstrates an immense force of will. Brown credits her town’s commitment and ownership over the project. 

Already this year, the new heat pumps have eliminated an estimated 770 tonnes of emissions. Not only are they reducing the community’s carbon footprint, but they are also saving residents on average $1,500 annually in utility costs. 

“It’s changing people’s lives,” said Brown, noting the average salary for people in the community is less than $30,000 per year. 

While researching the climate action plan, Brown’s team found the average Heiltsuk community home consumed double the amount of energy as the average British Columbian. Brown believes this to be due in part to the homes themselves, which were cheaply built by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. 

“It goes back to the legacy of colonization, and how our homes have been built in relationship with Canada to be subpar — because we were seen as subhuman,” said Brown.

Phil Climie, the retrofits program manager for Ecotrust Canada, said that “energy security” in communities like this “is very much tied to housing quality.” 

Climie and Brown attest to the fact that homes in Indigenous communities have generally not been built to withstand the elements. Poor insulation and construction not only lead to persistent mould problems but also reduce the effectiveness of a heat pump. 

In response, Heiltsuk has partnered with BC Hydro to retrofit homes and is working with the federal government, the University of British Columbia and Builders without Borders to build 40 new homes that will be owned by community members. 

“Energy sovereignty, land sovereignty, it’s all connected to body sovereignty,” said Brown. “When we have homes that aren’t healthy, we have people that aren’t healthy.”

Cali McTavish

Reader feedback

Giacomo Panico’s piece on the call for government rebates on e-bike purchases earned a few responses:

Kristin Gage: 

“I love to see provinces providing rebates for e-bike buyers, but there’s a missed opportunity here. In B.C., we can get a rebate in two ways: either if you are a business owner looking to buy an e-cargo bike or if you scrap a qualifying car. What about those who have never owned a car? Ideally, these rebates should also apply to young people who are apprehensive about the purchase of a car. Given that those in their 20s aren’t likely able to afford an electric vehicle, the appeal of an e-bike is strong for those who are looking to live a sustainable lifestyle, and simply for those who want to avoid all the costs of owning a car. As someone in their early 20s living in the urban core, I would strongly consider an e-bike as my main mode of transportation. By targeting this generation seeking to accumulate all the ‘adult’ possessions, offering an e-bike rebate could challenge the norm regarding what a ‘first vehicle’ should look like.”

Jim Johnston:

“There’s nothing like cash to encourage a change in behaviour. So, in addition to handouts for the purchase of EVs, why not extend that to ordinary bicycles and public transit (which in my opinion, if offered at no charge whatsoever would get a lot of cars off the road).”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News recently launched a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The recyclability of EV batteries

While electric vehicles are a key plank in the effort to reduce carbon emissions, there is skepticism in some quarters about the sustainability of the technology — specifically, whether EV batteries can be recycled. The Ask CBC News team recently explored this in a handy explainer on all facets of EV batteries. 

To start, in the current EV market, battery packs typically come with an eight-year warranty, although Steve LeVine, editor of the publication the Electric, told CBC they actually last much longer. When an EV battery pack degrades to around 75 per cent of its original capacity, it is considered to be at the end-of-life stage.

The main materials used to make EV batteries are graphite, cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel. The battery components are recyclable, but the recycling industry at the moment is not well developed, said Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium. Lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries can be recycled through smelting. This resource-intensive process recovers only between 40 and 50 per cent of the battery’s materials and produces greenhouse gases. The valuable metals and salts recovered in the process are refined and made suitable for use. When done correctly, lithium, for example, can be used as an additive in concrete.

But recycling can be expensive, so repurposing may be more cost-effective. Many automakers are exploring different ways of repurposing used EV batteries. In Japan, for example, Nissan is putting old ones to use by powering streetlights.

Jonn Axsen, director of Simon Fraser University’s Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team, suggested old EV batteries could be used to store power generated from solar panels on your house. But Petrunic stressed that a challenge with repurposing EV batteries is they are not manufactured for that purpose.

“You’d actually have to pump in quite a lot of money to remanufacture the old batteries so that it can serve that stationary purpose.”

(Duane Burleson/Associated Press)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Readers provide decluttering tips that don’t rely on landfill


Last week, Natalie Stechyson wrote about the environmental downside to decluttering — namely, when people unburden themselves of unwanted household goods, a lot of it ends up in landfill.

What on Earth? readers wrote in with suggestions for making sure those items don’t become trash, but instead have a useful second life.

Paddy Wales:

“I have trouble throwing things out, so I had a FREE sale, where no money changed hands. I advertised it on neighbourhood Facebook sites and Freecycle. Success and fun. I felt safe as I did not need to interact closely, and most stuff went. My dad’s 1960s tools? Hardly worth a dollar, but they went, as did garden, workshop and household items. Probably less than five per cent left over.”

Hilda Bryan-Seet: 

“As it relates to my own household and my visiting son and grandson, they are helping me to declutter after 50 years of living in the same house. There is a lot of technology that has evolved that we’ve kept around and in addition to clothing that is no longer suitable for an 82-year-old person. I find it difficult to part with my deceased husband’s clothing also. I am hoping my grandchildren may like to use clothing from their grandparents!

“However, we found a store nearby for disposal of the technological items. I have been conscious of separating garbage and have different composting bins and a garden compost pile.”

Karel Ley:

“I live in a community [Delta, B.C.] that has recycled for decades. Thrift shops and garage sales are the most often avenues of reusing household items, clothing and more. In addition, local artists are creating new furniture designs with paint and upholstery, with proceeds going to charities such as a hospice. Unique pieces of furniture are featured in many community residences.

“Challenge your local community to create even more value out of unwanted possessions by putting creative people in your neighbourhood to work.”

Tom Riessner:

“Just finished reading your article ‘Why environmentalists want us to stop decluttering.’ Having worked in this sector for the last 20 years, I wanted to offer my two cents.

“First off, I think it’s important to understand the charities you listed and most others accepting donations do so to raise money for a charitable goal other than reducing waste. It follows that they would only be interested in accepting items that are easily sold to raise funds. That means … a huge amount of donations that are refused every year because they require work to reuse or upcycle. What’s needed are more organizations whose primary goal is waste diversion. They tend to accept a wider variety of items and the condition of items isn’t always an issue. Makes it easier for donors and cheaper for customers.

“Second, if your goal is to find homes for all that stuff heading to landfill, you’ll need to raise demand to match the supply. There has always been a section of the community that purchases and reuses materials for various reasons, and while that section is growing, they are still in the minority. Let’s face it: marketing companies have done an excellent job of convincing us new is better and price is the only consideration. It’s going to take a big change in attitude from consumers and businesses alike as to what constitutes trash and how things are valued.

“It also means creating organizations that can help with that education, while also providing a place to collect and redistribute usable items in the community.”

Phil Le Good:

“I would love to repurpose my former cellphone, a Blackberry I used for years until it was made obsolete. I would like to repurpose or reuse some of the electronic gadgets I have in my garage, like the blender that needed a washer. I could order a motor, a glass bowl, but the washer was no longer being made. I wrote to the manufacturer and the only thing they could offer me is a 10 per cent discount on buying a new one. Or my Apple computer, a MacBook Pro with a ‘retina screen’ that has lost its coating. I was not aware that Apple had a program to replace screens that had this problem, but it was only for a short period of time. I could buy a new screen but the cost of replacement from an Apple reseller is high.

“We need Right to Repair legislation that prevents these companies from making their products obsolete or too costly to repair [and] forces consumers to buy new products. Manufacturers sometimes provide parts to dealers only, but not to other repair premises. They prevent others from making their parts even under licence. This is creating a great deal of waste. Perhaps you could tell this story and stop making consumers the problem, when many would love the right to go to a repair shop or buy a part for their products without being forced to buy new.”

Richard Langley:

“Everything points back to one simple truth — we do not consider the lifecycle of the things we produce and consume. Absolutely everything should be considered based on true costs — materials, labour, energy and externalities such as disposal, harmful effects, re-usability, recyclability, etc. Those ignored costs must be applied and the responsibility assigned to the manufacturers. A plastic bag is very useful for the few minutes it is used to carry your purchase home, but then it becomes an enormous and costly liability. Assigning these costs to the manufacturer will result in solutions being found.”

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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