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Transforming Income-Qualified Home Energy Retrofit Programs in BC (2021)


Jurisdictional scan and better practices


READ the full report: Transforming Income-Qualified Home Energy Retrofit Programs in BC

Executive Summary

Energy poverty is experienced by households who struggle to meet their home energy needs including thermal comfort, lighting, water heating, and cooking. Households with low and moderate incomes (LMI) are more likely to experience energy poverty than those with higher combined household incomes; however, energy is only one side of the energy poverty equation. Disproportionately high energy costs caused by inefficient equipment, poorly insulated homes, and/or a high cost fuel source are also significant determinants for households experiencing energy poverty.

Specific to British Columbia (B.C.), approximately 15%, or 272,000 households experience energy poverty. These households experience a median energy cost burden of 9.3%, three times that of all B.C. households. Despite having one-half the income levels, B.C. homes in energy poverty also have home energy costs that are 50% higher than the provincial average. One-quarter of households in energy poverty earn more than $40,000 per year after-tax, meaning they would not fall within the general classifications of low-income nor qualify for income-qualified energy efficiency program support. Energy poverty rates are also higher among the traditionally marginalized communities of Indigenous, racialized, recent immigrant, and lone parent households.

These statistics are all to say that energy poverty does not equal income poverty; far more factors than a household’s pay cheque determine whether a household is likely to experience energy poverty and to what extent.  While more current statistics are not available, higher unemployment rates and increased home energy consumption associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are reasonably assumed to have increased the incidence and gravity of energy poverty across the province.

A variety of home retrofit programs exist in B.C. to support homeowners, renters, landlords, Indigenous communities and non-profit housing providers to reduce the cost of their energy bills, degrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and decrease energy consumption. Although the target technology varies, programs commonly offer one or a combination of energy efficient item installation, weatherization, and energy coaching. Program structure varies by fund source and level of funding, administrator, target technology, target audience, and more.

This project focuses on analyzing existing income-qualified and utility ratepayer-funded home retrofit programs across North America and considers an improved delivery model for energy cost burdened bill holders in B.C.

This project focuses on principles of equitable program design and recommends centring equity and energy poverty in program design, structure, implementation and evaluation of these income-qualified home retrofit programs.

For an income-qualified program to be successful, it must 1) recruit and enroll the highest possible percentage of eligible households, 2) deliver energy savings that result in lasting and measurable cost savings for those paying the utility bill and 3) improve household comfort. Thus far, programs designed and administered by utilities in B.C. and most other jurisdictions have not achieved widespread participation, nor significant bill savings for the bill holder.

This research project identifies common limitations and deficiencies of these utility-funded, income-qualified programs in achieving stated outcomes and impact and highlight programs that are successfully addressing energy poverty in their region.

This project involves a jurisdictional scan and interviews with administrators of income-qualified home retrofit programs across North America. Particular attention is given to analyzing BC Hydro and FortisBC’s Energy Conservation Assistance Program (ECAP) — a longstanding income-qualified energy efficiency program in B.C. A literature review and interviews with ECAP administrators and users informs a journey map of a homeowner’s experience through the program (note that ECAP is available to renters, Indigenous communities and non-profit housing providers, but is administered and delivered differently so is not within the scope of this project). These interviews, the literature review and the journey map inform process-based and outcomes-based recommendations to improve the reach and effectiveness of ECAP in B.C. Similar home retrofit programs across North America, of which there are many, should also find these lessons learned and recommendations to be transferrable.

Our in-depth analysis of ECAP reveals the program is not achieving meaningful reductions in household energy bills, energy usage, or carbon emissions. ECAP customers face barriers in the program application and approval process, which keeps them from accessing the program altogether or accessing the extent of retrofits they need for meaningful and lasting relief from their high energy cost burdens. Several procedural problems emerged during our research, including: the ECAP application and proof of income requirements; the complex program steps and various program administrators; and the program recruitment strategy that is reactive rather than active to find qualified customers. Our analysis also reveals several outcomes-based deficiencies common to ECAP and similar programs. These include: performance metrics that are disconnected from and thus meaningful decreases in energy poverty are not occurring for the participants who manage to proceed successfully through the gauntlet of application and approval; program goals that are not ambitious enough to contribute to provincial energy efficiency and poverty reduction targets; and, programs that are designed, implemented, and monitored inequitably.

Our research findings reveal common barriers to success, including lack of trust in program administrators (especially utilities and government), ineffective recruitment strategies, complex and time-consuming application and approval processes, and insufficient retrofit support for achieving meaningful reductions in energy poverty and energy usage. Regulation and policy are also key barriers to program success, however these are beyond the scope of this report.

We outline a series of recommendations for the improvement of income-qualified home retrofit programs with the goal of decreasing the prevalence and extent of energy poverty in B.C. and transferring these lessons to other Canadian jurisdictions. ECAP is a longstanding program that has been replicated across North America, most recently, in Ontario with the launch in 2021 of the Energy Affordability Program, which replaced the Home Assistance Program and the AffordAbility Fund Trust; this former Ontario program is studied in this report and is the source of some better practice recommendations. Report recommendations are supported by  detailed explanations and by case studies, which identify trends and better practice examples.

The purpose of this project is to identify improvements and alternatives to widely accepted program shortcomings and recommend a viable path forward for an improved income-qualified retrofit program. An income-qualified retrofit program, which centres equity and energy poverty in its mandate and its execution, has the potential to catalyze significant retrofit activity in B.C., decrease energy emissions, decrease energy poverty and improve comfort, health and well-being for a significant number of households historically underserved by ratepayer funded retrofit programs.

Written by:

Laura MacTaggart, UBC Sustainability Scholar, 2020

In collaboration with:

Dylan Heerema, Ecotrust Canada

Allison Ashcroft, Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners