Efficiency Manitoba forges ahead while fewer people plugged into energy savings
'We're in a transition year,' head of Efficiency says, as new Crown corporation devises own strategy for 2020
Fewer Manitobans are expected to save money on their electricity bills this year — in part, Manitoba Hydro says, because of the creation of a new Crown corporation devoted to promoting energy conservation.
Manitoba Hydro's tempered expectations follow the government's edict in early 2018 to stop advertising the Power Smart brand it was phasing out in favour of Efficiency Manitoba, the new Crown corporation. The province argued it wasn't prudent to invest in an energy conservation program it was discontinuing.
More than 70,000 customers will save $15 million by taking advantage of energy efficiency programming this year, Manitoba Hydro estimates in its annual conservation plan, which is a decrease from the 82,000 customers saving $17 million in their energy costs estimated for 2018.
Hydro also predicted that 117,000 people will use their incentives and other offerings in 2019, a decrease from the 142,000 Manitobans estimated in 2018.
Repercussion of stalled ads
"Many of our programs, in particular residential and low-income, see less participation when we do not advertise or have a promotional campaign," spokesperson Bruce Owen said in an email.
But that isn't the lone driver: Owen also attributed the reduced forecast to the cancellation of the solar energy pilot and the market saturation that energy conservation efforts have already achieved, like the ubiquity of LED light bulbs, as one example.
Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer said there's a number of reasons why program uptake changes every year, but she said in an email she expects the streamlined nature of Efficiency Manitoba will "ultimately lead to more spending on programming and less on administrative overhead" going forward.
Josh Brandon, an anti-poverty advocate, said Manitobans deserve every opportunity to save on their energy bills.
"If there's a lack of awareness because of changes at Manitoba Hydro and Efficiency Manitoba, those need to be addressed because families are having to choose right now between rent, putting food on the table, and paying their energy bills."
Essential advertising was put on hold until the Power Smart licence expired in March, which gave way to Efficiency Manitoba, a utility with the expressed intent of reducing Manitobans' reliance on electricity.
CEO Colleen Kuruluk didn't wait to start advertising the new brand.
"We wanted to make sure that there's no discontinuation of energy efficiency offerings in the market, and that's both for customers but it's also for the businesses that support what we do because we'll certainly need them in the future," she said.
So far, the programs Efficiency Manitoba is promoting is the same initiatives, run by the same Manitoba Hydro employees, as the now defunct Power Smart moniker.
Efficiency Manitoba will start offering new programming in Apr. 2020 — nearly four years after the Progressive Conservatives promised, in the last election campaign, to create its own corporation.
"We're in a transition year right now," Kuruluk said.
Starting from scratch
The current energy efficiency plan — devised by Manitoba Hydro and still delivered by their staff — is effectively a placeholder as Efficiency Manitoba develops its own three-year plan. It will be sent to the Public Utilities Board this fall for review.
Efficiency was formally introduced with a spring promotional campaign tied to a seasonal rebate program for household products like lighting controls.
The separate entity was created to ease possible rate increases, make Manitoba Hydro and local businesses more efficient, and curb the need for expensive power-generation projects. Then-Opposition leader Brian Pallister called it "an inherent conflict" for the utility producing power to tell Manitobans to conserve energy.
Kuruluk said it was vital that Efficiency Manitoba was front and centre even without programming of its own.
"We're going to use this year to start building our brand, engaging Manitobans, and we're trying to build our list of followers and subscribers with the brand that we have now."
Two former programs weren't included in this year's energy conservation strategy. The incentive to install efficient power outlets at parking lots and a financing program for commercial customers were not often used, Owen said.
Running with new technologies
Kuruluk, who previously led Power Smart's offerings since 2007, is tight-lipped on what Manitobans can expect from Efficiency.
She said reaching out to Indigenous communities and the further adoption of emerging technologies, such as internet-connected devices like thermostats controlled by phone, are priorities.
"Not everybody is a tech-savvy person, but they still care about saving energy," Kuruluk said. "It could be just about educating, maybe offering incentives for these types of technologies."
Kuruluk said they are studying the effectiveness of Hydro's solar panel rebate program, which ended in spring 2018. The public utility has been slammed for cancelling the pilot program.
The new corporation has had a rocky introduction to the marketplace, from opposition parties, and even a former Tory MLA, questioning the rationale of spinning off energy savings into a separate bureaucracy, to the speed at which it's been implemented.
The new Crown corporation went nearly a year from being proclaimed in legislation in Jan. 2018 to hiring its first staff member.
Back in May, NDP Leader Wab Kinew called the corporation a "figment of this government's imagination."
Kuruluk began leading Efficiency this January and they had four employees as of June. They welcomed their inaugural board members in May 2018.
Political science professor Christopher Adams said the slow rollout is likely because the government had other pressing priorities, like major reforms in health-care and cutting the deficit.
"I would say, as a member of the attentive public, that I'd want to see some more progress in the coming year," he said.
In this year's conservation plan, one of the bigger changes is the reduction in staff for the Water and Energy Saver Program: six part-time technicians providing free water and energy saver kits in 2019, versus the 20 people that were scheduled for 2018.
Owen said it's likely most homes have already been visited by the program. He noted the success of door-to-door campaigns has been diluted by the increase in fraudulent furnace contractors.
Over its tenure, Manitobans took up Power Smart in enormous numbers, Kuruluk said. There weren't many home insulators in the Yellow Pages at the start of the millennium, but it's increased tenfold since then, she said.
Her task with Efficiency Manitoba is significant: a recent mandate letter from Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer dictated the new corporation become as successful as the former Power Smart program, if not more so, at a "significantly smaller percentage of the cost and materially less labour costs."
'We're up for the challenge'
Efficiency has also been told to annually reduce electricity consumption by 1.5 per cent and natural gas consumption by 0.75 per cent.
"I think we're up for the challenge. I think we're going to embrace innovation and embrace technologies, and, yes, I think we can do it."
Kuruluk said it is premature to say how many staff are needed, but the employee count for efficiency programming has already dropped from people taking buyouts through government-mandated downsizing, as well as natural attrition.
Hydro has 71 employees in its efficiency department this fiscal year, a reduction from 87 employees in 2018-19 and 109 employees in 2017-18.
The annual budget for energy conservation has hovered around $72-76 million the last few years, but is pegged at $73.8 million this year.
Efficiency's advertising budget sunk to $650,000 this year, from $850,000 the previous two years.
As discussions around a green economy and the threat of climate change take greater prominence, it bodes well for the future of Efficiency Manitoba and the creation of green jobs, Kuruluk said.
"I want to improve the visibility of energy efficiency so that people are thinking twice when they might potentially be wasting energy."