Low-income households in British Columbia are being left behind as energy bills rise. The 2024 BC budget needs to match efforts underway in Atlantic Canada.
Even as the cost of housing, food, and other essentials skyrocket in Canada, it has become all too clear that wildfire smoke, unaffordable energy bills, and both underheated and overheated homes are having profound health impacts. Unfortunately, families in British Columbia are being left behind as governments take action in Atlantic Canada to boost support for households facing energy insecurity.
We need only look at deaths related to extreme heat (predicted to double by 2030) and choking smoke from unprecedented forest fires as proof of the need to make our indoor spaces healthy, safe and pollution-free. On top of these new threats, many people in the communities we work with are still forced to choose between paying their utility bills and feeding their families. New Statistics Canada information shows that one in seven Canadians are keeping their homes at unsafe or uncomfortable temperatures due to rising energy bills.
In the process of developing our recommendations to the BC Budget Committee for 2024, we requested data from the Province showing how many households are taking advantage of CleanBC rebates to support home energy retrofits. To our surprise, we found that this information is not publicly reported — and so we submitted a Freedom of Information request.
The data we received validates warning flags already raised by the province’s own climate change accountability reporting: B.C. (and Canada, for that matter) are not on track — or even close — to achieving its emissions reduction targets for the building sector, or preparing our homes and buildings for a changing climate.
There’s no question that renewing our housing stock to prepare it for a changing climate will be expensive, requiring at least a billion dollars per year. Yet incredibly, the cost of inaction is higher still: climate-related disasters cost the BC government $10.6 to $17.1 billion dollars in 2021 alone. We recognize that the BC Government has taken steps to reduce energy insecurity, including launching the CleanBC Income-Qualified rebate program and proposing cooling requirements in the building code. Both measures make it easier for households to make their homes more climate-resilient. However, the data obtained by Ecotrust Canada demonstrates just how much more work needs to be done to achieve this goal.
If B.C. is to meet its own net-zero emissions goals and preserve indoor spaces as refuges from extreme weather and fires, the scale of retrofits needed is on the order of 80,000 heat pump installations per year, from now until 2040 — a tenfold increase over the rate seen today!
The scale of retrofits needed in Canada is even greater, but the federal government has offered only limited support to lower-income households switching from heating oil – and has focused its efforts in Atlantic Canada. The Atlantic provinces are already leapfrogging ahead of B.C. in their approach to decarbonizing lower-income homes through free heat pump programs. Catching up CleanBC’s programs is one of the most effective steps B.C. can take toward achieving its broader housing renewal goals.
Incentive amounts provided to homeowners in B.C. to retrofit their homes have increased tenfold in recent years — from $3.6M in 2020 to as much as $33.5M in 2022 (projecting the numbers for January-March 2023 to the rest of the year). Yet these amounts are still a far cry from what’s needed to prepare our homes for extreme heat, wildfires, and rising energy costs. Our analysis, and that done by groups such as the Pembina Institute, show that the level of investment needed in our homes and buildings needs to be one to two billion dollars annually.
Our modelling from three separate studies in partnership with BC municipalities: Prince Rupert, Powell River and the Regional District of Mount Waddington — have all demonstrated that electric heat pumps are, by far, the retrofit measure with the highest potential to reduce energy bills, cut carbon emissions, and improve the health and safety of a home. The B.C. government recognizes this — in fact, heat pump rebates now make up the majority of funds disbursed from the province for residential retrofits (87% of the total in 2022). This is precisely why our project work focuses on the uptake of this critical and potentially life-saving technology.
While we don’t know exactly how many heat pumps are being sold in B.C., based on the uptake of incentives, there may now be as many as 6,500 heat pumps being installed in B.C. households annually — up from just over 600 in 2019. While a tenfold increase may sound good on paper, a stark reality check is that this is still less than the 10,000 new fossil gas hookups being allowed each year in homes — each one of which locks in emissions and negative health impacts for decades.
Investment in retrofits for lower-income households has also increased: $5.8M in 2022 (the first year of the Income-Qualified Program’s existence) to a projected $16M in 2023. Yet, investments in lower-income households need to surpass that provided to wealthier households. Many British Columbians simply won’t be able to afford to retrofit their homes without comprehensive incentives, and these households will be the ones most at risk during the next heat dome, cold snap, or wildfire event. The Income-Qualified Program may fund as many as 3,000 heat pumps this year — but that number needs to be closer to 16,000 to be consistent with the overall goal of retrofitting all buildings by mid-century.
So, the uptake of heat pumps has increased tenfold and needs to increase another tenfold in short order. How do we get there? These are our top recommendations for BC’s Budget 2024, many of which were reflected in the Budget Committee’s report to the Legislature.
- The CleanBC Income-Qualified Program needs to align its approach with provinces such as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I., all of which had programs that provide a 100% free heat pump to lower-income households even before the announcement of enhanced federal support for those switching from oil. Lower-income families and individuals are currently paying some of the highest energy bills in the Province. They are at risk during extreme heat, cold and air pollution due to using outdated equipment like gas furnaces and baseboard radiators. The province should aim to install around 250,000 heat pumps through such a program, reaching all BC households living in energy insecurity by 2040.
- According to the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, B.C. needs to build out at least 25,000 new public, co-op, social, and non-market housing units annually to address the housing crisis — and it must build them to modern standards that ensure safe temperatures, indoor air quality, and use of electric heat pumps that provide energy efficient heating and cooling.
- BC Hydro should eliminate its Step 2 rate — which discourages electric heating by charging a higher rate to customers that use more clean electricity in their homes rather than polluting gas, propane or oil appliances. BC Hydro can help to mitigate any higher bills that result from harmonizing the rate by providing a discount to customers who heat their homes with electricity — or it could provide an income-qualified electricity subsidy (see below).
- Budget 2024 should introduce and fund an ongoing electricity bill assistance program for those that need it most, modelled after Ontario’s Electricity Support Program, which provides monthly bill credits of between $35-113 to low and moderate-income ratepayers. A backstop is badly needed to make sure that households that are at constant risk of disconnection can continue to afford their Hydro bills. Why? Even if we increase our rate of retrofits tenfold, it will take years to reach everyone and a backstop is urgently needed in the interim. As a one-time emergency program, BC Hydro’s Customer Crisis Fund does not currently fill this gap.
As our climate changes, we have a big challenge ahead of us to make our homes more resilient. By prioritizing the use of public money for those who need it the most, these measures would help improve equitable access to energy and advance climate justice for some of B.C.’s most vulnerable households.
[Published November 1, 2023]