Calgary

$115M spent in Canada annually on low-income energy help. Just not in Alberta

In Karen Shaw's home, a critical BiPap ventilator drives up the power bill. She's one of many Calgary residents who went searching for help to improve home efficiency and came up empty. A new report explains why.

Efficiency Canada releases review of provincial low-income energy efficiency programs

Alberta remains the only jurisdiction in the country without a provincially run low-income energy efficiency program. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

The global effort to fight climate change is expected to drive up household energy bills — and one researcher is sounding an alarm for Alberta.

Rising costs for heat and power are expected to hit low-income households the hardest.

Alberta is the only Canadian jurisdiction with no provincewide effort to help, says Abhilash Kantamneni, research associate with Efficiency Canada.

It has one-time emergency funding through Alberta Works, and some municipalities have loan programs. But other provinces have rolled out programs that actually foot the bill to reduce the energy consumption of struggling households long term.

That helps Canada meet its carbon targets, said Kantamneni. Plus, it "insulates low-income Canadians from future energy prices or upcoming carbon price increases."

'Strong appetite' for program in Alberta

Efficiency Canada released its findings in a report Thursday, describing programs in other provinces that spent $3,000 to $11,000 per house in 55,000 low-income homes across Canada in 2020.

None of that was spent here.

"Specifically in Alberta, we've heard from folks that there is a strong appetite because of rising energy prices," Kantamneni said.

CBC Calgary has been tracking the impact of rising energy prices by inviting community members to text their experience and questions

Many Calgary residents told CBC News they've gone looking for help reducing their energy consumption and bills but have not found what they need. They report cutting back on food instead, turning the thermostat to 17 degrees and even wearing snow pants inside. 

'No luck'

Calgary resident Karen Shaw says she's looked for programs to help make her home more efficient.

"I have had almost no luck finding them," said Shaw, who followed up on her text to CBC Calgary with an interview.

"Even simple things like a strip under our door, weather stripping around the patio door, would certainly help," she said. "If we had a bunch of money, probably a new dishwasher, because that's probably one of our bigger electrical appliances that sucks usage."

She and her husband Bob, a retired truck driver, are struggling to pay the utility bill partly because of Bob's oxygen concentrator, which runs 24/7, along with a BiPap ventilator overnight. That uses roughly 800 kWh of electricity per month but is required to keep him alive.

Bob and Karen Shaw say they've been seeking out programs in Alberta that would help them save on their utility bills but haven't had any luck. (Submitted by Karen Shaw)

Last year, they fell behind on their bill by about $450 and were given one-time financial assistance of $300 from Direct Energy.

But things are still tight for the Shaws, who are both seniors. Karen recently took on a job doing janitorial work at a sportsplex to make ends meet.

$115M spent in other provinces

The report from Efficiency Canada looked at what existing provincial programs offer. They vary across the country but range from direct install programs with major retrofits to self-install programs with energy savings kits: drying racks, light bulbs and more.

In 2020, provinces in Canada spent about $115 million on low income energy efficiency programs, Kantamneni said. They reach between two and three per cent of eligible low-income households every year.

"What we call for is increasing the annual reach of these programs to reach at least five per cent," Kantamneni said. 

"The benefit of taking the energy-efficiency approach is that we can lock in energy savings at the house level for the long term, regardless of what happens with prices, the fluctuations," he said. "It can help people escape out of energy poverty and reduce that energy cost and also it helps us achieve net zero."

Empower Me program returning

Alberta used to have a low-income program. The former NDP government used its carbon tax to fund education and home upgrades for low-income residents through the social enterprise Empower Me. 

Empower Me co-founder Yasmin Abraham says the program helped participants save an average of $1,800 per year on the variable portion of their bill. But it ended with people still on the waiting list because funds ran out and the program wasn't extended.

Many efficiency programs came to an end when the UCP government cancelled the NDP's carbon tax.

Abraham said this report highlights the gap that remains in Alberta. Although many Albertans can afford the increasing bills, many others can't.

"Folks are going to food banks, they're not putting their kids in programs. They're not able to pay for groceries because they need to pay for their bills.… The costs of energy have increased substantially for a lot of households."

Abraham said Empower Me is bringing back its Home Upgrade Program later this year, but its reach is dependent on financial support from partners, such as Epcor, the municipal governments of Calgary and Edmonton and the Alberta Real Estate Foundation. 

"The need is very great because nothing's been done yet," she said. "We would love to support as many households as we can."

Other rebates

The latest provincial budget has a new energy rebate program, but it doesn't kick in until next fall and it triggers only if regulated natural gas companies charge rates above $6.50 a gigajoule between October 2022 and March 2023.

Natural gas prices haven't gone above $6.50 a gigajoule since 2008, and the government's own assumptions peg that number at $3.20 a gigajoule for 2022-23.

Earlier this month the government said it will also provide $150 electricity rebates to help Alberta families, farms and small businesses with high electricity bills.

At the municipal level, Calgary homeowners will be able to get some financial assistance in 2022 as they try to make their houses more energy efficient. In December, city council approved the clean energy improvement program, or CEIP.

It will allow homeowners to apply for low-interest loans up to $50,000 from the city, which they tack onto their property tax bills and repay over 15 years. The list of potential projects include items like adding solar panels, increasing insulation, upgrading existing windows or buying a tankless hot water system.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to safety on Calgary Transit. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

Series produced by Elise Stolte

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