Edmonton is one of North America’s northernmost and coldest cities. Its chilliest month is January, during which its average daily temperature is a brisk -11.7°C (11°F). Its record low, also established in January (back in 1886), is a traffic-stopping -48.3°C (-56.9°F). To make matters worse, Alberta’s capital is very windy. There are winter days when Edmonton is colder than Moscow, the planet Mars, and even Winnipeg.
So, you’d think that ethnographers planning a January trip to Edmonton to experience some memorable chilly sensations might have a sensible plan. Not quite. The thermometer read a stunning 9°C (48°F) when we reached downtown from the airport. As we struggled to keep the bright sun away from our West Coast-rain-drenched eyes, Edmontonians looked beside themselves on the busy streets: jogging, walking cats and dogs, reading on park benches, playing (field) hockey, and having a jolly old time. It felt like spring break.
In spite of the heat wave we decided we’d maintain our focus on studying indoor warmth. While the weather wasn’t the most propitious, Alberta still retained its status as Canada’s most natural-gas-dependent province and, it goes without saying, the world’s most controversial oil producer due to its resource-intensive obsession with bitumen extraction. Alberta was the place to research off-gridders’ reliance on fire. Our interest in domestic warmth was apropos for another reason: a few Google searches had revealed that Edmonton was home to one of the liveliest Net Zero urban scenes on the continent. Net Zero building is a type of design characterized by an equal balance between the energy consumed and the energy generated on-site by a home. Because of Alberta’s reliance largely on coal for electricity-generation and natural gas for domestic heating, any involvement in independent renewable energy generation there—even a partial one—could have a very meaningful effect on one’s carbon footprint. So, while Net Zero is not synonymous with off-grid, Jon and I had made plans to visit three such residences in the city.