Our Energy Policy team sent a list of recommendations to the BC Government to help them address the urgent issue of energy insecurity as the province’s poverty reduction strategy, TogetherBC, is refreshed in 2024. Here are the four main recommendations we’ve offered. If you want to read the full letter we sent to the BC Government, here’s a link to the PDF.
1. Set a target to eliminate energy poverty in BC as a key pillar of TogetherBC, and as part of a justice-based housing renewal strategy
The BC Government should develop a long-term strategy to ensure that every home and building in BC is healthy, low-carbon, and climate resilient. In keeping with principles of justice and equity, public funds and programs should be primarily directed to residents with the least ability to pay for upgrades to their homes, with higher-income households targeted through regulations such as the forthcoming Alterations Code for Existing Buildings.
In conjunction with this sector-wide strategy, we call on the BC Government to develop a clear plan and target to eliminate energy poverty in BC within 10 years as part of TogetherBC. This effort will require a steep change in ambition, but we believe this vision is achievable. The measures required to achieve it will also support significant progress toward other priorities, including housing renewal, economic recovery, and climate action.
2. Provide no-cost retrofit programs to low- and moderate-income households, to prepare them for a changing climate and rising energy costs
Extreme heat and weather induced by climate change is already killing British Columbians, as the June 2021 heat dome and subsequent Extreme Heat Death Review Panel Report demonstrated. For too long, we have subsidized primarily wealthy households that already have the resources to prepare for these dangers. Rebate and incentive programs for home energy retrofits are disproportionately accessed by those who need them the least, while lower-income households cannot afford to make their homes more climate resilient, or make the energy efficiency improvements that would lower their utility bills.
The creation of an income-qualified retrofit program in 2021 was an important first step. As part of a cross-ministry effort to achieve the goals of TogetherBC, we now call for the BC Government to expand this program and provide full cost coverage for retrofitting and electrifying the homes of the 272,000 BC households that are experiencing energy poverty. Such a program should focus on deploying electric heat pumps, which have the potential to significantly improve indoor air quality and provide much-needed cooling during heat waves, in addition to lowering energy bills.
BC is already lagging behind other jurisdictions in this regard, and provinces such as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have introduced programs providing a free heat pump to residents meeting an income-qualifying threshold. Such a program could cost around $100 million annually — significantly less than the $400 million spent on ICBC rebate cheques in 2022, but with vastly more impactful results. The cost of inaction is much greater. The cost of dealing with the health impacts brought on by extreme heat could push our already fragile $27-billion healthcare system to the breaking point.
This moment presents an opportunity to begin addressing many of the challenges facing British Columbians, from energy poverty to the climate crisis to the housing crisis. By bringing all homes up to modern energy and health standards, we could lower utility bills, improve the quality of the housing stock, and prepare for a changing climate by making our indoor spaces more comfortable and healthier. Policymakers rarely have this kind of opportunity to address so many urgent social issues in a cost-effective and holistic way.
3. Introduce an income-qualified energy bill assistance program
BC currently has no program providing direct energy bill support for income-qualifying households, putting it behind many jurisdictions including Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and California. Compounding this problem, BC’s only emergency energy bill relief program, the Customer Crisis Fund, has an uncertain future after nearly being cancelled in 2020. This could leave hundreds of thousands of low- and moderate-income British Columbians with nowhere to turn if they fall behind on paying their utility bills.
The BC NDP campaigned in 2017 on a promise to introduce a “lifeline rate” for electricity, which would have reduced the burden on households that face chronic hardship in paying their energy bills due to lower incomes, poor quality housing, and an inability to afford the most energy-efficient technologies in their homes. Unfortunately, the BC Utilities Commission has not allowed this policy to advance, as the Utilities Commission Act does not provide any mandate for the Commission on equity or climate justice.
Now, the conversation around basic access to electricity is more relevant than ever. Utility bills are on the rise, and BC Hydro rates are expected to increase significantly over the coming years. Our research of other jurisdictions’ policies suggests that BC could offset this impact by introducing an energy bill assistance program at the provincial level. This program would protect access to essential energy services for heating, cooling, lighting, and cooking for the most vulnerable households in BC.
As a key deliverable in implementing a goal to eliminate energy poverty, the BC Government should introduce a permanent, ongoing monthly bill subsidy for qualifying households, considering factors such as household income, and energy demands that cannot easily be reduced. Such a program could be administered alongside, and delivered in conjunction with, existing forms of income assistance.
4. Ban disconnections and implement arrears forgiveness programs
Utility disconnection policies exacerbate energy poverty and are a human rights issue. Currently, winter disconnections are deferred by BC Hydro for most of the province, but are common during the summer months. In the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, winter disconnections still take place if the weather is warmer than 0 degrees Celsius.
These policies ignore the realities of energy poverty, including the chronic inability to pay bills, and accounts in chronic arrears. Utility policies do not acknowledge basic energy services like heat and light as human rights. We call on the BC Government to protect basic access to energy by banning disconnections altogether – and for lower-income customers at a minimum.
We also recommend implementing arrears forgiveness programs similar to those implemented by utilities in Colorado and Vermont. These programs allow participants the opportunity to escape energy poverty by giving them a fresh start on their energy bills. We believe that arrearage forgiveness programs should be considered as an important component of an effective energy affordability framework.
We strongly encourage the BC Government to build on existing momentum and adopt a vision. Our recommendations for the TogetherBC plan include setting a clear and ambitious target to eliminate energy poverty in BC within the next ten years. Paramount to achieving this goal will be the prioritization of cross-ministry policies, including enhancement of income-qualified retrofit programming, and the development of an ongoing bill assistance program for those that are not yet ready or able to complete home energy retrofits.
We look forward to collaborating with the BC Government across all relevant ministries, to make this ambitious, yet achievable vision a reality — advancing energy justice across British Columbia.
[March 16, 2023]