Heating costs in QC warm your heart

Date 08/03/2017

Written byTaylor Ireland

In my last blog we talked about how people in Quebec City have learned to beat the long winter, mostly by bundling up, going outside and enjoying it.

There’s another, more practical aspect to coping with the winter, since people do in fact spend most of their time indoors. That means there’s an awful lot of attention paid to how homes are heated to fend off the cold. Unlike those hardy settlers and natives who struggled (and suffered) each winter to provide enough warm shelter to survive, modern residents of Quebec City have convenient choices, and happily, those choices are an extraordinary bargain compared to what people have to pay to heat their homes in other places.

The province of Quebec has an advantage that few places have: an abundance – some would say a surplus – of hydro-electric power. That’s because in  the early 1960s, Quebec embarked on an ambitious program of tapping the province’s massive northern river systems to generate electricity. While environmental and first nations concerns were a factor in the decision-making, Quebec has built a power-generating grid matched by very few countries in the world.

That means the provincially owned utility Hydro-Quebec not only exports electricity to places like Ontario, New Brunswick and New York, it can provide power to the citizens of the province at the cheapest rates in the country, and very advantageous compared to our southern neighbours.

According to figures in Hydro-Quebec’s annual study of rates in North America, the average monthly residential bill for April of last year was $72 in Quebec. The closest comparison was Winnipeg at $82, but after that, prices get out of hand: Toronto, $178; Boston, $276; San Francisco, $310; New York City, $295; and, because it’s a city in my home province of Saskatchewan, Regina, $146.

Given the availability and affordability of hydro power it’s not surprising that the majority of residents opt for electricity as their main source for heating. However, natural gas use is gaining ground, thanks to its lower and stable price and expanding supply network. Recent figures show natural gas in Quebec, provided by Gaz Metro, is about 30 percent less expensive than electricity and 50 percent less than heating oil – mazout, en francais. Not that long ago, before the expansion of the hydro and gas grids, heating oil was the most popular fuel in the city, but now it is a diminishing  choice for residential heating. As the remnants of chutes and bins in older houses in the city attest, coal also was once king in Quebec City, along with wood-fired stoves.

Ironically, it is wood-waste, a main fuel for biomass energy, that is growing in popularity. Quebec City is a world leader in the promotion of biomass power, with the award-winning Cité Verte (Green City) project, which uses a central wood-pellet burning system to provide heat to some 800 apartments, condos and town-houses.  

On the topic of biomass, the city has a $124 million plant in the works that will use mostly food waste to generate energy. The system requires that an efficient household and commercial food waste collection be in place.

We can’t forget to mention, since we are talking about a city that sometimes seems in wintertime like a pioneering settlement, is the joy of the fireplace or the wood stove. Unlike Montreal, the use of home fireplaces is not subject to civic regulation, although common sense – not firing up the foyer during the very rare smog alerts, or burning inappropriate fuel – is appreciated by neighbours and city officials. And, as is the case with other renewable fuel sources, firewood is relatively inexpensive and generally in ample supply.

So, to sum up, Quebec City may have a wicked and wonderful winter, but the cost of keeping warm indoors won’t leave you cold.