In 2020, we launched an Energy Security for All in British Columbia campaign. On this page we describe the campaign, and the recommendations to government that we are proposing during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
What is energy poverty and energy security?
Energy poverty can be broadly defined as a lack of affordable access to the energy services that contribute to quality of life. Essential energy services include thermal comfort, lighting, water heating, cooking, and transportation. Although there is no standardized definition or condition for energy poverty, it occurs at the nexus of low incomes and high energy bills, where households must spend a disproportionate amount of their income on meeting basic energy needs.
Energy security can be thought of as the opposite of energy poverty – a condition where energy services can be accessed affordably, equitably, and safely. Energy security is one component of energy justice – a broader term that encompasses the equity impacts of the entire energy system – including climate change impacts, and the impacts of energy extraction and development.
Why does energy security matter in the COVID-19 crisis?
We believe that during and after the COVID-19 crisis, all British Columbians should be able to access essential home energy services – heating, lighting, cooking and electricity – without hardship.
The economic insecurity and job losses stemming from this crisis will impact thousands of households in communities across the province. As a result, an increasing number of British Columbians will struggle to pay their household utility bills, including more than 270,000 households in B.C. that were already facing energy poverty before the pandemic began.
Energy access is fundamental to the health, safety, and comfort of all British Columbians. This crisis has underlined the way that individual health is directly linked to the strength of our economy and the resilience of our communities. The economic circumstances created by this crisis could undermine the energy security and wellness of so many more British Columbians without a decisive response.
What is the cost of inaction?
A lack of access to basic energy services can have profound impacts on human health and well-being, and acts as a risk multiplier for illnesses like COVID-19. We know that inadequate heating systems can lead to higher instances of asthma and mould-related illnesses. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, which has significantly increased morbidity and mortality rates in those with respiratory illness, these impacts are even more worrying.
We applaud the steps that the BC Government and utilities have taken so far to provide short-term relief and flexible payment options for energy bills during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. However, these measures are insufficient to ensure that all British Columbians will have access to energy services without incurring further financial hardship over the coming months.
The measures we propose below are ambitious and will require a mobilization of public and private capital, as well as regulation, on a scale not seen in B.C. for decades. However, as the COVID-19 crisis is teaching us, the costs of being unprepared for new threats to health and well-being in a rapidly changing world are far worse than the cost of taking proactive and bold action.
What are we asking for?
We are calling for the Province of British Columbia to take action that will protect energy access and security, both in the short-term pandemic response, and during the long-term recovery phase as we rebuild the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
The detailed policy recommendations below expand on our public call to action:
Short-term: Providing emergency bill relief to all who need it
During a public health crisis, no one should have to worry about being unable to keep the heat and lights on at home due to loss of income or illness. Essential energy services are critical to ensuring that British Columbians stay safe and healthy both during the crisis and afterward, when businesses and families are getting back on their feet. The BC Government can support by:
- Extending utility disconnection bans to protect the health and safety of British Columbians as they are asked to stay in their homes
- Extend the recently announced ban on disconnections during the crisis until at least 2021
- In future winter seasons, drop the requirement for forecast temperatures to be below 0°C to avoid winter disconnection (for South Coast residents)
- Improving and expanding the existing COVID-19 Relief Fund to provide sustained emergency relief to families and small businesses impacted by the crisis
- Offer FortisBC customers bill rebates, not just deferrals, following the example set by BC Hydro
- Extend the Fund to cover at least a 6-month period
- Removing late payment fees for non-payment of all utility bills
- Freeze interest charges for accounts in arrears until at least the end of 2020
- Simplifying and reforming the Customer Crisis Fund so that it is can be relied on by customers facing emergencies beyond the current COVID-19 crisis
- Simplify the application process to enable greater customer participation
- Reform the qualifying criteria to ensure that households facing financial stress can access the funds they need beyond the Relief Fund timeline
Medium-term: Creating new, sustained protections for households experiencing energy poverty
British Columbians facing energy poverty, which include low-income and at-risk households as well as those without access to affordable heating or energy efficient housing, were already struggling to pay their utility bills before the COVID-19 crisis began. Now, they are facing further pressures, and could be more at risk of poor health outcomes due to inadequate heating and ventilation in their homes. The BC Government can help protect these vulnerable households, now and into the future, by:
- Introducing a basic energy rebate for qualifying low-income and at-risk qualifying BC households
- Follow the example of the Ontario Electricity Support Program, which provides a monthly bill rebate directly to low-income households
- Ensure that such a rebate is designed to cover the cost of basic energy services in the home (e.g. 50-70% of average household consumption), while still encouraging energy efficiency and conservation beyond this threshold.
- Modernizing and expanding the Energy Conservation Assistance Program (ECAP) for low-income households
- Expand the scope of the ECAP program to include more substantial building envelope retrofits, particularly where those interventions can improve air quality and ventilation in homes
- Cover 80-100% of the cost of installing a heat pump (up to $10,000) for low-income households, similar to the approach taken by the province’s new Indigenous Energy Coach program
Long-term: Accelerating BC’s economic recovery and creating thousands of new jobs
This crisis presents a once-in-a-generation chance to rebuild BC’s economy in a way that is more resilient to future pressure and crises. A well-designed recovery plan for the province will make us better prepared, not only for future public health crises, but for the climate crisis which remains the biggest threat to the health and well-being of British Columbians. The BC Government can build a long-term foundation for resilience by:
- Implementing an ambitious housing renewal strategy, ensuring that every home and building in BC is healthy, clean, and resilient in the face of emerging threats
- Retrofit all homes and buildings that do not meet modern seismic, ventilation and energy efficiency standards, with a target of reaching all homes by 2040
- Mandate zero emissions heating systems in all new and retrofitted homes to support climate commitments
- Make homes and buildings more resilient to future climate conditions, variable air quality, and extreme weather events
- Mobilize public investment to provide immediate employment and training support for out-of-work British Columbians in implementing this strategy
- Ensuring that any stimulus measures and recovery plans are consistent with BC’s health, climate mitigation and resilience goals
- Providing additional housing and infrastructure support to Indigenous communities and First Nations reserves
- Accelerating the adoption of clean and healthy technologies, like electric vehicles and heat pumps