Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver urged Canadians to apply for the federal government's reintroduced home retrofit subsidy that will end in less than a year.

The new Toronto MP, elected May 2,  held a news conference Wednesday to announce the re-introduction of the ecoENERGY program that provides grants of up to $5,000 to help make energy efficient home upgrades.

The Conservatives had discontinued the program but promised in the March budget to bring it back for one year. The government maintained the promise to invest $400 million in the program during the spring election and included it in the revised June budget.

Oliver said the program will be offered until March 31, 2012, and that Canadians should think about applying for it sooner rather than later.

"You won't receive a grant if you don't apply, and that's why during this summer construction season we encourage you to participate in this program, as it will end on March 31, 2012," said Oliver.

"Don't wait until your kids are back in school and back to their extracurricular activities. Apply now, ahead of the rush." 

The reintroduced program has a new requirement: those wanting to participate in it must register first. After filling out a form, they will receive a registration number and instructions for the next steps in the process.

Home energy audit required

To qualify for the grant, homeowners must hire a company licensed by Natural Resources to perform home energy audits. An evaluator will perform the inspection, and the government says within about two weeks, homeowners will get a report with a list of eligible energy efficient upgrades.

Once the upgrades are completed, a post-retrofit audit must be done before homeowners can send off their application for a cheque from Ottawa.

The second new requirement is that all receipts must be kept and shown to the energy auditor when the post-retrofit evaluation is done.

These audits are done at the homeowner's expense and can cost several hundred dollars each.

The retrofit program was first introduced in 2007 and was immensely popular. The government abruptly announced in April 2010 that it was cutting off the program and wouldn't accept new applications for it. Although the decision was met with much criticism, the Conservatives ended the program in March 2011.

Its reappearance in the Conservatives' budget first introduced in March was viewed as a measure designed to appeal to the opposition parties who were in favour of it. It wasn't, however, enough to gain their support for the budget, which they still rejected.

Oliver said 500,000 Canadians made use of the previous program, which on average, handed out cheques of about $1,400 per household that applied.

Program could be cut off

The short timeframe for the program's renewal means homeowners who want to take advantage of it this time around need to act fast.

Oliver said the program is only being offered for a year, because it costs the government money at a time when Ottawa is trying to eliminate the deficit by 2014. He said all program spending is evaluated in that context, and "it's a question of balance."

The government is also warning that the program could be cut off "without notice" if it reaches the $400 million allocated to it.

Oliver said the ecoENERGY program has saved homeowners thousands of dollars in home heating and other costs and that it has helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He estimated the program's renewal will help an estimated 250,000 households.

He also estimated that it will generate $4 billion in economic activity because of the construction and renovation products and services that Canadians will buy.

Homeowners already jumping at chance for rebate

Some homeowners were quick to take Oliver's advice and immediately registered online on the Natural Resources website for the program Wednesday.

Larry Widdifield, part owner of Ottawa Valley Energy Consultants, said he received several calls from customers eager to get the ball rolling and have one of his inspectors do their audits.

His is one of the companies certified by Natural Resources and he said the ecoENERGY program is an important source of income. "I'm still doing my happy dance," Widdifield said about the program's renewal.

When the government cut off the number of people who could apply for the program in 2010, Widdifield said the work dried up. They got some work through a similar program by the Ontario government, but the company was limping along, he said.

"A number of service organizations failed during the past year because the work wasn't out there and they went under," according to Widdifield. He said he'll be looking to bring energy auditors out of retirement now that the federal program is running again.

He predicts it will be popular again and that the $400 million cap will easily be reached. Widdifield thinks the program should be made permanent, especially given its popularity and the economic benefits it generates.

"Nothing was as lucrative as this to keep us busy," he said. The $400 million investment in a program that generates billions of dollars in economic activity shouldn't be limited to only one year, he said.

He also advised homeowners interested in the program to act fast and at the very least get their registration number so they have a spot in the program.