Environment

“I’ve never been so speechless”: Alberta family wins eight-month Live Net Zero competition

The Shannons competed in six themed challenges to reduce household emissions and walked away with the $50,000 grand prize 

  • Apr 30, 2024
  • 875 words
  • 4 minutes
The Shannon family accepted the Live Net Zero grand prize from Canadian Geographic Honourary President, the Hon. Lois Mitchell, at a ceremony outside their home in Airdrie. (Photo: Craig Van Horne)
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Samantha Shannon thought she was being pranked with a late April Fools’ Day joke when she was informed her family had won Canadian Geographic’s second-ever Live Net Zero contest. 

She and her husband, Kevin, jumped on a video call with Aran O’Carroll, Canadian Geographic’s National Director of Environment and Government Relations, anticipating they’d be told one of the other seven families in the national competition had secured the $50,000 cash prize. 

Transitioning to geothermal energy required the Shannons to dig up their front lawn. (Photos: Samantha Shannon / Memories 2 Memory)
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“In my head, I was expecting bad news. I wanted him just to tell us so I could continue folding my laundry,” Samantha laughed, recalling Aran’s poker face and composed sombre expression. “Long story short, I didn’t get around to folding the rest of my laundry that day.”

Over eight months, the Shannons – a young family of five from Airdrie, Alberta – competed in six themed challenges aimed at reducing their household emissions, including a heating and cooling challenge, commuting challenge and home envelope challenge. Alongside other families from Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Shannons undertook lifestyle changes in an effort to shrink their carbon footprint. 

One of their main projects was switching from natural gas to geothermal energy to heat their home. This required them to dig five boreholes 250 feet deep in their front yard to install ground-source heat pumps, which draws in heat from the earth. They also installed an air-source hybrid heat pump hot water tank, which typically uses up to 70 per cent less energy than an electric water heater.

To offset their electricity consumption, the family also invested in solar panels. They now have 42 panels for a 19.11 kilowatt system—more than double the average for an Albertan home. In addition, the Shannons changed their commuting habits, working remotely when possible and maximizing their e-bike usage—the latter of which can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 24.4 million metric tons, according to a 2022 report in the journal Transport Policy.

The Shannon's front lawn being dug up to install heat pumps. (Photos: Samantha Shannon / Memories 2 Memory)
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Over the eight-month competition, the Shannons installed solar panels on their roof. (Photos: Samantha Shannon / Memories 2 Memory)
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It wasn’t just the big-ticket tasks the family focused on. They also undertook relatively smaller projects, from sealing up cracks to adding insulation to their attic. Automation also played a massive role in the family’s journey to net zero, as Samantha said she believes behaviour modification can only go so far and it’s challenging to just rely on sheer willpower. 

The Shannons now have 42 panels for a 19.11 kilowatt system, more than double the number on an average Albertan home. (Photos: Samantha Shannon / Memories 2 Memory)
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“Someone who wants to reduce their energy consumption may lower their thermostat or put on an extra sweater,” Samantha said. “But the first time your kids have a cold or the overtime is stacking up at work, you go back to the creature comforts, which aren’t always the most energy efficient.” To address this, she said her family uses an intelligent system that turns their lights off and thermostat down when the family leaves the home. Their green choices have paid off: Since the beginning of the competition, the family’s energy bills have gone down, and none of them have been higher than the previous five years they owned the home.

Reflecting on the Live Net Zero experience, Samantha emphasized it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all competition. What works for one family may not work for another, she noted. “All eight families had the same challenge and the same goal, but everybody took a different approach to reduce their emissions and their utility costs,” she said. Samantha added she was impressed by other families throughout the contest: from the DePape-Rodrigues family, who replaced their gas-powered vehicles with one EV, to the Waddell-Shanklands, who turned their flat roof into a living garden, extending the lifespan of their roof by 15 years. While the families inspired one another, the Shannons also want to share what they have learned with other Canadians who may also want to reduce their household footprint.

After eight months of competition, the Shannons – a family of five from Alberta – emerged victorious. (Photo courtesy the Shannon family).
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“Reduce first and then produce is definitely the way to go,” Samantha said, explaining that while solar panels are usually on the forefront of people’s minds as it is very visual and tangible, there are much smaller steps Canadians can take to reduce consumption, such as addressing air leaks in their home and sealing up gaps. The Shannons also encourage Canadians to explore heat pump options. “If you could give me a heat pump light bulb, I’d have a heat pump light bulb. Those things are a miracle of engineering,” Samantha said, referring to how heat pumps are two to five times more efficient than gas furnaces and provide substantial savings on energy bills. 

Though the competition has come to a close, the Shannons’ Live Net Zero journey won’t end here. With their $50,000 prize, they plan to replace their front door with one that is more insulated and energy-efficient. They also want to give back to their community and are donating a thermal imaging camera to the Airdrie Public Library’s new “library of things” so their neighbours can use the camera and identify areas where they can improve their home’s insulation. 

To learn more about the Live Net Zero challenge, go to https://canadiangeographic.ca/live-net-zero/about-live-net-zero.

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