May 12, 10-11am PT – CUSP & Ecotrust CanadaWebinar: Evaluating Utility Programs for Income-Qualifying Households
Over the past year and a half, our Community Energy team has been conducting research on policies and programs that can advance equitable and affordable access to clean home energy for British Columbia’s rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. With better policies in place, home energy retrofits can benefit both social and environmental well-being. This April, we’re pleased to release a major research report looking at a primary, and critical, factor driving the affordability of utility bills: energy efficiency and consumption in the home. Transforming Income-Qualified Home Energy Retrofit Programs in B.C. is the result of a collaboration between Ecotrust Canada, Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners, and Laura MacTaggart, a UBC Sustainability Scholar who led the development of this report.
In our Community Energy Initiative’s first major research report, Moving Toward Energy Security in British Columbia’s Rural, Remote and Indigenous Communities, we explored the drivers of energy poverty, which tends to result where lower incomes, high energy costs and emissions, and poor energy efficiency in homes coincide. Since then, we have explored another of these three major drivers, the price of energy, in our Rethinking Energy Bill Protections in British Columbia report. That report looked at direct financial supports that could be offered to households that struggle to pay their energy bills, based on successful programs that reduce energy poverty and advance climate goals and best practices in jurisdictions like Ontario, the Maritimes, and California.
Our newest report now turns to the topic of income-qualified energy efficiency programs, in particular, the Energy Conservation Assistance Program (ECAP) administered by utilities including BC Hydro and FortisBC, through a lens of equity-based program design. We considered the customer experience in depth, including a process of “journey mapping” the path of a participant through all stages of ECAP. Our research also looked at better practices and program examples from several other jurisdictions including Ontario, Nova Scotia, California, and Vermont. Our goal was to explore how a new generation of energy efficiency and retrofit programming could contribute to healthier homes and environments, and reduced energy bills to those that need them most.
What we found is that BC’s utility-run programs for lower-income households are failing to deliver meaningful relief from high energy costs for the most vulnerable, with issues including low participation and minimal annual savings impacting the effectiveness of the ECAP program. This impedes the program’s ability to delivery meaningful energy reductions at a household level, resulting in both social and environmental consequences. Our jurisdictional scan showed that many similar programs in North America experience the same kind of problems, with a few notable examples of innovative programming that has been able to overcome traditional barriers that face energy efficiency initiatives.
Our team’s recommendations for improving ECAP, and programs like it across North America, include two types of interventions. 1) Process-based recommendations, if enacted, would enhance the customer experience without making transformative changes, but are limited in the depth of impact they could ultimately have on broader program outcomes and the lives of participants. These recommendations include easy and streamlined application processes, enhanced recruitment, and deeper retrofit interventions.
In contrast, 2) outcomes-based recommendations have the potential to completely reimagine energy efficiency programming. These more transformative actions could vastly reduce energy bills for participants through per-home targets, and improve the health and comfort of homes through deep and comprehensive retrofits. A transformative approach to income-qualified energy efficiency programming would also align with provincial and state mandates to lower carbon emissions, meet modern energy efficiency standards, and reduce poverty. Transformative change also means making the four dimensions of equity (procedural, distributional, structural, and transgenerational) central in all aspects of program design, implementation, and evaluation.
It is critical that low- and moderate-income households are not left behind in the transition to a low-carbon economy, and that programs address the price gap between low-cost, polluting heating systems and more efficient, clean technologies. With this in mind, an improved income-qualified retrofit program should also include measures that have the potential to significantly reduce emissions; for example, replacing natural gas furnaces with electric heat pumps as a funded measure.
BC is positioned to lead innovation in energy program design
Unfortunately, the model that ECAP and programs like it currently follow is not driving high enough participation rates, or energy savings, to meaningfully help participants that are experiencing energy poverty. While BC is celebrated as a leader in energy efficiency and clean energy across Canada, there is room for improvement. Our utilities ought to be well positioned to lead innovation in program design, and to transform the landscape of income-qualified clean energy home retrofit programs across Canada.
Recognizing that income-qualified energy efficiency programs are a long-standing and costly undertaking for utilities and government, we believe that the recommendations and better practices presented in this research report can lead to improved processes and redefined outcomes that meaningfully change the efficiency of these programs, and the benefits to participants. It is our hope that the recommendations made in this report will be considered by BC Hydro, FortisBC and the Government of British Columbia in order to reassess and redesign ECAP and, more broadly, to establish a comprehensive energy poverty reduction and retrofit strategy across BC for the benefit of people and the planet.
READ the full report Transforming Income-Qualified Home Energy Retrofit Programs in BC
[Published April 15, 2021]