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Energy upgrades must aid renters who pay for power, too

The Chronicle Herald by Katherine Reed 9 September 2015

To be among the poor can be a pretty miserable position. Housing poverty and energy poverty are poverty’s two main features. If you’re a homeowner on a low income, things are pretty straightforward (though not perfect, by any means): the provincial government can help with grants for structural repairs and Efficiency Nova Scotia and Clean Nova Scotia provide the HomeWarming program that will improve the integrity and comfort of your home and bring down your heat and electricity costs.

For renters with low incomes, life is far more complicated. In Nova Scotia, about 50 per cent of households rent their housing. Some of the most energy inefficient housing stock in the province is low-cost rental housing, found in apartment buildings, mobile and mini homes, and single family homes. Nova Scotia’s housing stock is among the oldest in the country and much of it is in dire need of renewal, particularly on the energy efficiency front.

How do low-income renters manage in this challenging environment? They cobble together enough money from various sources to pay the bills and they try to minimize their use of energy in the home. For most people, minimizing energy use entails living in a very chilly environment all winter and turning the heat off during the spring and fall. It often means shutting off heat to some rooms and living in an even more cramped space than before.

In order to pay the bills, some people divert some of their grocery money to pay for energy, and then have to rely on food banks and other charities to put food on the table. They sometimes apply for emergency fuel and electricity grants through charitable groups. All of this help is spread very thinly, so each household only receives a small amount at specified times, and only when they’ve exhausted all other options. Other household bills go into arrears and energy bills can get far, far behind, forcing the householder to negotiate repayment plans with collections agents. None of this is pleasant for anyone, and for the indebted householder, it’s stressful in the extreme. It’s the kind of stress that is devastating to physical and mental health. Dealing with that is expensive for all of us.

The good news is that we can fix this problem. In fact, Efficiency Nova Scotia is creating a plan to retrofit rental properties for improved energy efficiency. Make no mistake, it will cost money. Consider it an investment. It’s an investment in mental and physical illness prevention, improved family functioning, climate change mitigation, lower costs for social programs, better educational outcomes, substantial job creation, and more. It’s an investment well worth making because it saves us all a lot of money and makes our communities better places to live.

Recently the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board set out the budgets and operating terms for all of the energy efficiency programs that Nova Scotia Power must purchase from Efficiency Nova Scotia for households at all income levels as well as for businesses, large and small. No doubt, the URB always faces a struggle during the negotiations among all the interested parties to manage the competing interests. In the most recent agreement, set down in August, the URB has ordered program funding from Nova Scotia Power Inc. in amounts lower than what Efficiency Nova Scotia requested, but higher than what NSP offered. That seems a reasonable compromise.

But here’s the rub: Higher levels of investment are required to achieve energy use reductions in low-income households because they can’t afford to share the cost. With a budget 20 per cent lower than it originally requested and the same savings targets, Efficiency Nova Scotia will be under pressure to achieve savings at the lowest possible cost. There is an ever present danger that the energy poor will get short shrift and the better-off will attract the lion’s share of our collective investments.

The HomeWarming Program helps low-income homeowners to secure substantial efficiency retrofits. It is crucial that energy efficiency programs for low-income renters are equally robust. Four experts gave evidence at the URB hearings that low-income programs are an essential aspect of affordability and many members of the public supported a robust program for low-income renters. Renters help to pay for efficiency services through their electricity bills just like everyone else. They must have equal access to significant electricity efficiency services.

The URB encouraged, but did not direct, Efficiency Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Power to fund low-income rental programs properly or even to give them any special consideration based on their special circumstances. With the cost pressures Efficiency Nova Scotia is facing, and with no directive requiring equal treatment for low-income renters, things can easily start down a slippery slope. It is essential that Efficiency Nova Scotia and NSP fund the new electricity efficiency program for low-income renters that Efficiency Nova Scotia is creating at this time.

Katherine Reed is a writer and researcher living in Antigonish.