Nova Scotia

How birch bark and oat bags were used to insulate one N.S. family's home

A new documentary commissioned by the Town of Bridgewater is telling the hidden stories of Nova Scotians living in energy poverty.

Town of Bridgewater shining a light on the stories of residents living in energy poverty

Katie Russell is one of five young people in Bridgewater who helped produce the documentary. (Living in Energy Poverty/Youtube)

A new documentary commissioned by the Town of Bridgewater is telling the hidden stories of Nova Scotians living in energy poverty. 

People like Katie Russell, who grew up in a century-old home her grandparents built using discarded oat bags and birch bark for insulation. 

"We would always keep the heat below 65 F ... to save on oil or we would turn the stove on for cooking and leave the oven open and use the oven to heat the downstairs of our house," she said. 

Roughly 40 per cent of households in Bridgewater are living in energy poverty, meaning they spend more than 10 per cent of their income to stay warm or gas up their vehicles. 

The 15-minute documentary Living in Energy Poverty tells their stories. It was created by a group of young people, including Russell, and funded through the Smart Cities Challenge — a Canada-wide competition through Infrastructure Canada.

"It was disheartening to hear that so many people are still suffering the same way I was," said Russell.

Town working on solutions

Bridgewater spends about $88 million a year on energy. That means the average homeowner, who makes roughly $40,000 a year, is budgeting $5,000 for energy.

"That's over 10 per cent of your pre-tax income, so it's huge. It leaves no room in people's budgets for what's really important," said Leon de Vreede, the town's sustainability planner. 

He's trying to find a way to combat the problem, which he said is as much a social issue as it is an environmental and economic one.

The town is developing a plan to help bring half of the households out of energy poverty in the next decade. That means offering subsidies so homeowners can make improvements to their homes and building neighbourhood solar panels so they rely less on expensive oil.

De Vreede said it's also important to have more transportation options.

"These things need to be co-ordinated on the community level in order for people to access the system and navigate it."

While Bridgewater isn't alone when it comes to energy poverty, de Vreede said it has some specific challenges, including a combination of old homes and a reliance on heating oil.

"These make for very, very high wintertime heating costs especially, and that's when you see poverty related issues really being exacerbated by the energy situation," he said.

Birch bark, seaweed and old newspapers

Paul Pettipas, CEO of the Nova Scotia Home Builders' Association, has been a builder and developer for more than three decades.

He said insulating homes with birch bark — or whatever else was on hand — was not uncommon in Nova Scotia. He's seen builders use everything from seaweed to old newspapers to keep their homes warm. 

"Anything that was in the area that was inexpensive and easily accessible they used," he said. 

Other homes simply had air between the walls to keep the wind out, he said.

Bridgewater is in the running for another $5 million from the Smart Cities Challenge that it hopes to use to tackle the problem of rising energy costs. (The Canadian Press)

While de Vreede is trying to solve the problem at a town level, Pettipas said anyone can call Efficiency Nova Scotia to have their home assessed. 

"That is a good first step because they're not trying to sell you anything," he said. "They're just saying if you do this, this and this, you're going to save this. Unless you have a lot of expertise, go with this inspection."

Russell, who now lives on her own in Bridgewater, said she didn't know what energy poverty was before she became involved with the documentary.

"And I didn't know that it was a problem that affected the community so heavily," she said. "It was very eye-opening."

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning

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