Nova Scotia

Lending rules hinder ability of N.S. municipalities to create efficiency programs

Municipalities in Nova Scotia could do much more when it comes to energy efficiency programs, but some people say they need access to more lending programs to make that happen.

'There is literally trillions of dollars' in potential investments, says sustainability planner

The Town of Bridgewater, N.S., is one of the leaders in the province when it comes to energy efficiency programs. (Robert Short/CBC)

There are untold amounts of money for municipalities in Nova Scotia to tap into for energy efficiency programs and other means to reduce carbon footprints, but borrowing restrictions in the province have so far made that cash inaccessible.

That was one of the messages delivered to a committee of the legislature on Tuesday by a representative for the Town of Bridgewater, a community at the vanguard of energy transformation in Nova Scotia.

Leon de Vreede is the South Shore town's sustainability planner. He's part of the team that's helped Bridgewater significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and win a $5-million federal competition aimed at making homes more energy efficient.

One of the key programs the town is using sees people get loans for efficiency upgrades that they then pay off in conjunction with their property taxes. But de Vreede said more programs would be possible if municipalities were permitted to borrow from private and non-profit sources, which often have lower interest rates than Municipal Finance Corporation.

Energy department working with communities

"There is literally trillions of dollars in international investment looking for high-impact investment opportunities," he told the legislature's natural resources and economic development committee.

Deputy energy minister Simon d'Entremont said that although financing rules for municipalities don't fall under his department's purview, they are working with communities to try to help increase efficiency.

"A lot of them are picking up climate change ambitions and they're trying to come up with plans to do it, so we've got a program to assist them coming up with their plans for the future," he said in an interview following the meeting.

Those efforts should help municipalities tap into upcoming federal program funding related to climate change, said d'Entremont. He said he also sees a benefit to discussing a province-led program, based on Bridgewater's experiences, that could be applied to other communities.

Energy poverty a problem in N.S.

Although part of Bridgewater's efforts are motivated by doing right by the planet, it's actually energy affordability that's driving the work, said de Vreede. Almost 40 per cent of families in Bridgewater struggle with energy poverty, which means they spend more than 10 per cent of their after-tax income on energy.

"The fact that it ties in with our long-term energy and climate goals, that's almost secondary to the fact that this is a pressing need for Nova Scotians," de Vreede said. "Nova Scotians need access to solutions that help to drive down their energy costs."

He said statistics show energy poverty is a problem across the province, which is particularly pronounced in rural communities.

MLAs from all three parties expressed interest in seeing more in the way of programs that encourage homeowners, developers and renters to pursue efficiency upgrades or greener new builds, as well as finding ways to allow other communities to follow Bridgewater's lead.

More options for communities

Halifax-Needham MLA Lisa Roberts (NDP) and Fairview-Clayton Park MLA Patricia Arab (Liberal) both talked about the need to get more options to renters, who typically don't have the same level of access to efficiency programs as homeowners.

Roberts said she'd like to see an approach that takes on an entire neighbourhood at a time to allow everyone to benefit from efficiency programs, which would lead to more affordable living costs while helping the environment.

"Ultimately, Nova Scotians may be paying higher electricity rates, but their bills are actually going down," she said.

Tory MLAs Pat Dunn and Elizabeth Smith-McCossin, meanwhile, called on government officials to act more quickly in considering district heating projects that use wood chips for heat. A pilot project that was to begin this year has been delayed.

Not only would it help with energy costs, Dunn and Smith-McCrossin noted, it would also address challenges their constituencies and others are facing right now as the forestry industry is forced into transformation because of the pending closure of Northern Pulp.

Although the majority of work in Bridgewater is focused on energy efficiency, there are also plans that include renewable energy such as wind and solar projects. It's all aimed at making the town net zero by 2050, said De Vreede. He believes that through partnership with the provincial government, what's happening in Bridgewater could be replicated in other communities in Nova Scotia.

"Our work is all about documenting what's working and what's not working," he said. "We see ourselves as a place to pilot new solutions, work through the pitfalls and the testing so that others can take them on more quickly."

Roberts said the best way for that to happen is through a provincially-funded program that could be administered by municipalities.

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