Dylan Heerema, Senior Analyst & Researcher, Community Energy
No one should be forced to choose between paying their utility bills and feeding their family. At Ecotrust Canada, we believe that equitable and secure access to basic energy services is a right. That’s why last month, we launched a public campaign, Energy Security for BC. In addition to calling for an extension to urgently needed COVID-19 relief measures, this campaign emphasized the need for new, sustained protections for British Columbians facing energy poverty.
In a province-wide survey commissioned this month by Ecotrust Canada, we found that more than one in five British Columbians either cannot pay their energy bills, or have had a harder time paying their energy bills as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. With the crisis now entering the Recovery and Rebuilding Phase, it’s time to do the work of determining what such protections might look like here in British Columbia.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, there were over 270,000 households in British Columbia facing energy poverty – often defined as those individuals who spend more than 6% of their income on energy. With 400,000 jobs lost in BC in March and April alone, unemployment places additional pressure on already strained household budgets.
In this moment of social upheaval and uncertainty, there is a pressing need for bold and ambitious policies that improve our ability to weather crises. Discussions and momentum are growing in favour of a ‘new normal’ that prioritizes building social and environmental resilience.
The lessons for why we need to build back better are clear. For one, this pandemic has taught us that maintaining protective equipment and safe working conditions for essential workers keeps everyone healthier. A parallel example, closer to our mission, is that ensuring everyone can afford adequate heating, lighting and ventilation in their homes will contribute to better health outcomes and a more resilient society.
Addressing a complex social inequity, like energy poverty, requires a political willingness to bring everyone up to a high and universal standard of health and safety. Achieving this goal will require us to provide new, targeted supports to those that need them the most. We believe that this approach can be an effective way to ensure a resilient and healthy society going forward, one that will be less vulnerable to systemic shocks like COVID-19, economic recession, or the ongoing climate crisis.
What does targeted support look like in practice? Our survey found that more than two-thirds of British Columbians would support the creation of a new program that reduces, or offsets, energy bills for people facing financial hardship. Such a program could take several forms, including:
- reduced energy rates (sometimes called ‘lifeline rates’) for vulnerable households;
- a basic energy rebate to provide direct bill relief for all low-income households; or,
- improvements to the Energy Conservation Assistance Program, which provides home energy upgrades for free to qualifying households.
Over the summer, we will be conducting research and engaging with policymakers to determine the best ways forward to achieve energy security in British Columbia. There are a number of programs in other jurisdictions (such as Ontario’s popular Electricity Support Program) that could serve as models here in BC. Our summer research will be advanced in collaboration with Geneviève Doiron, a talented Loran Scholar and student of Environment and Anthropology at McGill University who will be working alongside our Community Energy team.
The first months of 2020 have seen us all pivot our work to respond to the new reality of a world changed by COVID-19. Here at Ecotrust Canada, new information, like this month’s survey, has shown us that ensuring universal access to affordable, dependable, and clean sources of energy is more critical than ever. We look forward to continuing our work with communities and policymakers to make this goal a reality.