Skip to main content
ecotrust energy poverty

How a justice-based approach to home retrofits can help end energy poverty

ecotrust energy poverty


By Dylan Heerema, Senior Analyst and Researcher

Canadians spend as much as 90% of their lives indoors, so it’s no surprise that draughty, inefficient housing contributes to a whole host of problems, such as mould and moisture, and corresponding health issues including asthma, cardiovascular disease, and increased vulnerability to diseases like COVID-19. Nowhere are the impacts of energy-inefficient housing more pronounced than in low- and middle-income households, where limited funds for upgrades and higher energy bills create a vicious circle that only serves to perpetuate energy poverty — which now afflicts over 2.8 million Canadian households.

What are the equity and justice implications of energy access and use in the home? At Ecotrust Canada, our Community Energy team has been exploring this question through the lens of energy poverty, and the drivers of lack of access to affordable energy services. This year, we produced research reports on the impact of energy poverty on rural, remote, and Indigenous communities in BC, as well as on the need for sustained, meaningful bill protections for the most energy-vulnerable households.

Bill protections, designed to offset energy costs for vulnerable customers, are only one part of the solution. A complete policy approach to ending energy poverty must also include strategies for raising wages and creating more secure employment — now more than ever as we rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also a third part of the equation, which relates to the way we use energy in our homes and buildings. This work is often simply labelled ‘energy efficiency’, yet it’s important to remember that there is much more than efficiency at stake when we consider the related impacts to the comfort and safety of our homes.

Upcoming energy efficiency research

This winter, we will be teaming up with the Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners (CUSP) Network and UBC’s Sustainability Scholars Program to conduct the next phase of our research into energy poverty. We are excited to welcome Laura MacTaggart, on board from UBC as a student researcher, as she investigates how a new generation of energy efficiency and retrofit programming could help bring healthier homes and reduced energy bills to those that need them most.

Home energy retrofits = job creation

The benefits of retrofitting homes, to make them energy efficient and low-carbon, is a critical pathway to reducing carbon emissions, and an effective job creator and boost for economic activity. For example, every $1M invested in programs that support home energy retrofits creates between 16-30 jobs, a far greater number than most other sectors including resource extraction. This is one reason why Canada’s Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, among other groups, are recommending tens of billions of dollars in new funding for retrofits as part of an economic recovery strategy. Yet, we rarely consider who stands to benefit from such investments, and who is at risk of being left behind.

Energy programs are missing the mark

In British Columbia, for example, since 2008 the Energy Conservation Assistance Program has offered free energy efficiency upgrades for income-qualifying households. Unfortunately, this program has not achieved widespread adoption or significant bill savings. Only around 5% of the 350,000 households eligible for ECAP have participated in the program to date. Uncovering the reasons for this low uptake will be a major part of this new research, but limited awareness and low cost savings are among the contributing factors. Of households that do participate in ECAP, the average bill savings has amounted to less than $100 per year. These savings are largely insignificant when compared to the steady rise in energy costs in BC, particularly electricity prices, which have increased by almost 50% in the last decade. Such programs, while undoubtedly delivering positive outcomes for some participants, cannot deliver impacts at the scale needed to eliminate energy poverty in their current form.

More recently, programs designed to help cover the costs of highly efficient appliances, like air source heat pumps, have been introduced by some provinces. In BC, this includes the Indigenous Community Heat Pump Incentive, and rebates offered through Better Homes BC. Unfortunately, many rebates are only available to those who are switching from natural gas or oil to an electric heat pump, leaving many low-income households that rely on inefficient electric baseboard heaters ineligible. Without rebates to help cover the initial cost, heating system retrofits — and the savings that come with them — remain out of reach for many households.

The current focus among policymakers is on electrification of buildings, which is a necessary step toward addressing climate change, but on its own will not be enough to lift all Canadians out of energy poverty.

The scale of current low-income energy programs is not adequate. BC Hydro, for example, currently spends between $6-8M per year on its low-income efficiency programs. Yet, providing meaningful upgrades to all eligible low-income customers in BC would likely require billions of dollars of public investment over the coming decades, as well as innovative new options (like the PACE model) for financing retrofit projects. Despite the enormity of this challenge, the current pandemic is teaching us that letting the most vulnerable live in unhealthy and unaffordable conditions could have a more profound negative impact on our health care system, human lives, and the very fabric of our society.

A social justice-based program is needed

Rethinking home energy retrofit programs in BC and making progress on eliminating energy poverty is not simply a matter of increasing funding for existing programs. Systemic issues, like social and racial inequity, power dynamics, and a lack of accountability, must be addressed. Poorly-designed programs can also introduce other barriers to participation, including lack of awareness, administrative confusion, and mistrust of service providers. A holistic, justice-based program approach is needed: one that ensures that energy access is affordable and safe for everyone. Our latest research will look at new models for program design and delivery, incorporating lessons and examples from the most successful programs across North America. We look forward to sharing this work with you as it unfolds.