The time has come to un-plug. Canadians are the world’s worst per capita energy hogs. Sure, there are all kinds of excuses: It’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and the population is spread thinly over 10 million square kilometres. But excuses don’t cut it anymore and the time is now to rethink energy usage on the road, at work, at home — everywhere. It’s time to take a look at current practices that our grandchildren will surely shake their heads at in disgust.

A first important step is to make a conscious shift away from the thinking that has led to the current crisis. Make no mistake about it, we are in crisis mode. The Independent Electricity Market Operator (IMO) is the body that oversees electricity generation in Ontario and they have said that 40% of the province’s power generating plants will be retired in the next 15 years leaving a huge power gap with only growing demand. What the IMO hardly seems to spend a moment thinking about is the radical notion of conservation. Why do we use so much power? Why aren’t there more organized moves to curb consumption including tax incentives, and disincentives such as a carbon tax?

Just as people are starting to realize that meat is not simply something tidily wrapped in plastic in the grocer’s cooler, so too do we need to realize that gas doesn’t magically come out of a pump at the Petro Canada station, nor does electricity come out of a hole in the wall. We need a consciousness shift that recognizes that 4.3 cents per kilowatt hour is artificially – ridiculously – low. Thousands of tons of coal are burned to create that electricity in Ontario releasing thousands of kilograms of mercury into the air, eventually ending up in waterways getting to fish and into the food chain.

Air pollutants released by Canadian industries rose 7% from 1998 to 2000 while they fell by 8% in the U.S. Ontario ranked number 3 after Texas and Ohio in the amount of pollutants business created. But guess what is the cause of half of that 7% Canadian increase in air pollutants? One facility — Ontario’s huge, coal-fired Nanticoke power station on Lake Erie, which increased emissions by almost 3,000 tonnes.

So what does all this doom and gloom mean? Well sometimes it takes doom and gloom to get the government to act and to get together to make changes. And changes are coming. Alternative energy is the buzz these days and while advocates have been preaching themselves hoarse for decades, most agree that it is better late than never.

In June a federal cabinet committee gave the go ahead to a plan — expected to easily be approved by cabinet — that would offer rebates expected to average $1,000 to Canadians who retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient. Also in June the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment announced they would work on reducing coal-fired power plant mercury emissions by as much as 90%.

You can’t do much about government or industry but you can start at home looking at your own energy consumption and if you are thinking of building a home or making a major move, there are a lot of things you can consider.

And if you are thinking of unplugging and easing yourself off the grid — at least a little — there are lots of ways to do it and lots of information and help available. This article will be the first in a series of four looking at alternative energy and housing in part based on information from a conference earlier this year entitled “Living Off the Grid” held at the Ecology Retreat Centre.


When people build houses they usually look at the materials they are using in terms of the practicality, economics and aesthetics. Wood is relatively cheap, very strong and it looks good, so is very popular. Fibreglass insulation works well for the dollar spent so is a big seller. But an increasingly popular consideration is the idea of embodied energy. When looking at a particular material, look not just at what energy it might save but what energy went into its creation, shipping, and later its disposal.

Chris Magwood builds — and teaches people to build — homes out of strawbales. Strawbale housing is becoming more and more popular in certain circles because of the low cost, ease of construction and incredible R-factor (insulation) associated with the homes. “The construction of a residence is an ongoing compromise,” Magwood says. “Even a small mud hut has environmental impact. What’s important is balancing your needs, society’s and what works.”

Strawbales are great building materials primarily because they work, but also because you can get them produced locally, i.e. they didn’t travel on trucks from far away, and little is wasted in their production. In fact they often would have ended up as a waste product anyway.

On the other hand we have fibreglass insulation. This is used to save energy in that it keeps the heat inside the home but with a wider lens we see a different picture. Magwood says that fibreglass is costing the planet.

“You have to live in a house for 20 to 25 years to save the energy you have wasted by buying fibreglass insulation.”

Concrete is another good example. According to Magwood 10% of world carbon dioxide emissions comes from manufacturing cement. And that doesn’t even count the fuel used for the machines that mix it and the trucks that carry it.

“Concrete is one of the biggest disasters to hit the planet.” Magwood also warns to be wary of environmental looking systems that really aren’t. For example, green living roofs look natural, recycle rainwater, and provide good insulation but huge amounts of extra wood or cement are needed to support them and they also require a rubber membrane and metal flashing. Things are not always what they seem.

There are other alternatives beyond straw bales. A company called Terra Firma Builders from Saltspring Island, B.C. are building houses out of rammed earth. This is a technique using 10% concrete with damp earth rammed into place around wooden forms. The president of Terra Firma, Meror Krayenhoff, says that while most frame homes are built to last 50 to 100 years, their rammed earth walls will stand at least 1,000 years.

Some of these housing alternatives have multiple benefits being environmentally friendly, locally produced and aesthetically pleasing. Like so many “new” or “alternative” ways of doing things there isn’t really much “new” in some of these systems but rather more of a return to an old-fashioned mode when things were done out of necessity, without modern chemicals and contrivances. Our parents and grandparents who grew up on farms ate organic before there was anything else. And people designed their houses to maximize winter sunlight and to make cooler areas for food storage and summer living. Now we build facing the street, whichever direction it goes.


• Chris Magwood’s company, Camel’s Back Construction is at: or you can visit the soon-to-be-completed demonstration home at the Everdale Environmental Education Centre near Hillsburgh, ON. Or at least visit the website at
• Terra Firma Builders’ website is
• To learn more about embodied energy including the embodied energy values of various building materials visit
• For more info on Robins’ Nest visit


Paul Henderson is a valued Vitality contributor.

Write a Comment

view all comments