Lights still on in federal buildings in National Capital Region even as civil servants work from home

The lights remain on at some federal government buildings in Canada’s capital region, even though most civil servants have been working at home for nearly a year to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Buildings remain operational despite lower occupancy rate, PSPC says

Les Terrasses de la Chaudière complex of government office buildings in Gatineau, Que., is seen on Tuesday, from across the river in Ottawa. (Chris Rands/CBC)

The lights remain on at some federal government buildings in Canada's capital region, even though most civil servants have been working at home for nearly a year to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Responding to photographs taken by CBC News showing lit-up office towers before dawn, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) said that while occupancy levels are currently reduced, federal buildings remain operational.

"As part of its commitment to energy savings, Public Services and Procurement Canada turns off non-essential lighting where possible during non-working hours," reads a statement from the department, which runs and maintains federal buildings. 

"During the pandemic (lower occupancy rate than usual), as general guidelines, lights remained off during working hours with the exception of lighting needed in occupied areas, to support cleaning staff or for security purposes."

No cost savings

But any efforts to reduce energy use has not resulted in any savings for the government.

"While details are not yet finalized, consumption data for the year 2020 showed that the total utility costs have remained stable when compared to pre-pandemic values, due to buildings remaining operational and maintenance continuing on normal schedules," said Public Services spokesperson Michèle LaRose.

While some federal buildings remain fully lit, the R.H. Coats Building — which normally houses employees from Statistics Canada — has left most of its lights off aside from those depicting a heart shape. (Chris Rands/CBC)

Reacting to photos of a government complex illuminated early one morning this week, Conservative Treasury Board critic Luc Berthold said he is concerned the Liberal government isn't following through on its own commitments to improve energy efficiency in government buildings.

"The Liberals need to explain why they are keeping the lights on in these buildings while public servants are working from home," he said.

Burak Gunay, an assistant professor of building science at Carleton University, said a certain amount of lighting must remain on for safety reasons, and also to comply with building codes.

"While vacancy-off lighting controls with motion detectors are now standard practice for lighting automation systems in office buildings and it is in the energy code, these are fairly old buildings without a centralized lighting automation system," he said.

NDP environment critic Laurel Collins repeated her party's call for making large buildings more energy efficient.

"It's disappointing to see that the government isn't even taking basic energy-saving measures, like turning off lights in government buildings when no one is there."

Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May remarked that the situation presents a perfect opening line for question period: "Lights on, but nobody's home!"

May says it sets a poor example to leave the lights on all night.

"During COVID with so many people working from home, the message is even worse," she told CBC News.

Slated for upgrade

Last December, Public Services posted a notice on its website detailing plans to renovate the Terraces de la Chaudiere, a government office complex in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Parliament Hill.

Many key areas are slated for updates, including the building's automation and lighting systems.

Public Services said the new systems will be more modern and use energy more efficiently.

"Our overall target is for the building to have net-zero carbon emissions."

The department said those renovations are scheduled to begin this fall.

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