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Energy security work continues in three First Nation communities 

By Phil Climie, Project Manager, Community Energy 

Continuing forward

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Energy team’s approach has shifted to supporting projects from afar. As we find ourselves in fall 2020, this project work forges on, largely due to community members stepping into larger roles. While this dynamic asks more of our partners, it supports local development into each project, allowing for a greater focus on each community’s approach.

One of the many changes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to us all is the increased time we spend at home. With many people out of work, others working from home, and fewer safe public spaces available, the home has become even more central to our lives. For those who do not have access to safe, affordable, comfortable homes, previously difficult situations can be exacerbated. We know that the people in British Columba who struggle with energy poverty are in these tough situations right now, feeling even more pressure to maintain adequate heating and other basic energy needs for their homes. COVID-19 has highlighted growing disparities in home energy security in BC, furthering the case for expediting justice-based solutions that provide safe, comfortable, and affordable home energy for those who are most impacted.

Below are three examples of important energy security work that continues to take place in our partner communities this year.

Quatsino First Nation

Northern Vancouver Island

In 2019, Quatsino First Nation and Barkley Project Group completed a Community Energy Plan that identified households in their community were spending nearly triple the average BC Hydro customer on electricity. Home energy models and energy audits suggest that each home could save well over $1,000 a year in energy costs by installing ductless air-source heat pumps. Heat pumps significantly decrease the energy demands of the home as they are more than three times more energy efficient than baseboard electric heaters. In addition to reducing consumption, heat pumps circulate warm air more effectively than radiant heaters by cycling air over a heat exchanger and blowing it throughout the homes’ primary living spaces.

In August 2020, 23 ductless air-source heat pumps were installed in 15 elders’ homes: eight homes received two systems, and seven homes received a single system. The heating contractor — Precise Heating — sized and placed the units according to each homes’ heating needs and the preferences of the occupants. For this phase of installations, elders were given priority by Quatsino Chief and Council to ensure they are best equipped to handle the cold, winter months. In the warmer months, the ‘heat’ pumps have a cooling mode that enables them to function as high efficiency air conditioners, an important benefit expressed by Quatsino leadership due to the hot summer temperatures of their inland location.

Haíłzaqv Nation

Bella Bella, Central Coast

The Heiltsuk Nation continues their ongoing work of replacing oil furnaces with air-source heat pumps in Bella Bella homes. At present, a pilot project for central air-source heat pumps has led to the installation of 60 systems to date. Since central air-source heat pumps utilize ducting from the previous oil furnace systems, they provide opportunities for uniform heating throughout the home.

As applications for heat pumps come in from community members, it is with little surprise, yet great dismay, to learn of the current heating experiences of many members. Nearly half of all applications received have been classified as ‘critical’ in nature, meaning they have no functioning heating system, or their systems are aging out or unreliable. A remaining majority of applicants fall within the ‘nearing critical’ classification. One other criterion for selection is the cost for some members on fixed incomes, such as Elders or those on disability. The Nation believes that cleaner more affordable heat for its members is a worthy investment and continues to seek funding mechanisms to continue this initiative.

To ensure that local skills and labour are leveraged throughout the project, the installation contractor for the project — Coastal Heat Pumps — has been training and working with Heiltsuk members on the decommissioning of oil systems, preparation of homes, cleaning of ducting, and installations of heat pumps, since 2018.  Pamela Wilson, a member of Heiltsuk Nation and principal at Tagila Consulting, has taken on primary management of the project, with the support of a Heiltsuk Heat Pump working group.

“We all know that one of the greatest challenges on reserve is housing. We have all heard the horrific stories of substandard building materials that have led to dilapidated homes on reserve, we are no exception. The lack of heat goes hand in hand with mould in our homes. One of the elders who was a recent recipient shared that she forgot what it felt like to have a house that was warm in every room, and said that she had to ask her daughter to take her portable heater out of her bedroom as it was a habit for her to turn it on at night before bed. It’s these stories that make this work so rewarding and I am honoured to be a part of it.
The goal by the end of March 2021 is to have installed 100 heat pumps. Funding the project is like a project in itself. This round of funding that we are currently working with comes from six separate sources. The logistics and reporting requirements for this type of funding structure requires detail and attention and that is where Ecotrust Canada provides expertise in proposal writing as well as management of the overall project, including the collection and record of data management, which will be crucial to reflecting the need in community and justifying future funding applications.”
— Pamela Wilson, Tagila Consulting

 ‘Namgis First Nation

Cormorant Island

In 2019, we visited Cormorant Island to meet with ‘Namgis First Nation, Whe-la-la-u Area Council, and the Village of Alert Bay. From our discussions, we learned about the island’s long-standing struggles with aging heating systems, unmaintained homes, and consequently high energy costs.

Representatives from ‘Namgis First Nation noted that numerous homes had been disconnected from their electricity supply in recent history due to payments in arrears. BC Hydro has a Customer Crisis Fund in place to provide support in these situations, however our research was corroborated by the experiences of ‘Namgis First Nation staff who have stopped recommending and supporting members’ applications to the program due to low success rates. While BC Hydro did cease all disconnections for three months this summer due to the COVID-19 crisis, as we enter the winter non-payment outages are once again a possibility for homes in economic distress. Our Energy team will continue to advocate for better solutions for those struggling to maintain their homes’ energy supply.

Since meeting last year, Ecotrust Canada and ‘Namgis First Nation have partnered to complete a Housing Energy Assessment with the purpose of reviewing the current state of housing and energy in the community. With Vancity support, this project will include a survey to gather community feedback, a multi-year analysis of BC Hydro bills, and the construction of home energy models in RETScreen Expert. Together, these elements will help determine the costs and benefits of different project opportunities that improve energy security.

Understanding the challenge

As the days shorten and temperatures drop, the Community Energy team is thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people who are living in energy poverty. Energy poverty is a pervasive issue throughout BC that has significant effects on health and well-being. During our work in late 2019 with the Regional District of Mount Waddington, we identified that one in three residents face challenges paying their home energy bills, and one in five residents have been forced to forgo other basic needs such as food, clothing, and transportation to meet payments — and this was before the COVID-19 crisis.

Looking ahead

With governments speaking more about energy efficiency and retrofit economies, our team is encouraged by the increased attention toward addressing factors that contribute to energy poverty. We will continue to advocate for culturally appropriate home energy solutions that reduce energy costs, improve comfort, and stimulate local economies while reducing demands on natural resources and harmful effects on the planet. British Columbia is ready for an increased commitment to alleviating energy poverty altogether, and the province’s rural, remote, and Indigenous communities are prepared to participate.