Energy poverty: the hidden technology gap

Two activists are working to make sure that everybody has access to affordable energy.
Energy poverty, where the cost of basic utilities is too high to afford is more common in Canada than you probably think. (Pixabay)

We hear a lot about the so-called "digital divide" or "technology gap". But at its core, making sure that everyone has access to digital resources starts by ensuring that households can afford basic utilities.

Energy poverty, or energy burden, refers to households that spend too much on their household energy needs. That includes electricity as well as heating and cooling.   

Maryam Rezaei is a researcher who looks at energy policy and energy poverty in Canada. She's also a Senior Analyst with Community Power. She says energy poverty is "basically the idea of looking at the percentage of household income that gets spent on energy needs."

DeAndrea Newman Salvador is the Founder and Executive Director of the Renewable Energy Transition Initiative (RETI) in Charlotte, North Carolina. She says there are a couple of definitions but the most common one for energy poverty is "when a household spends greater than 10 percent of their gross income on energy costs."   

Salvador said many people who face energy poverty spend well over that threshold. "We've seen some instances when families spend over 30 percent of their income on energy costs."
DeAndrea Newman Salvador (Physical Chemistry Design, LLC)

Here in Canada, energy poverty is more common than many Canadians realize. According to Rezaei's research, 21 per cent of households in Canada experience energy poverty or 2.8 million households.

Energy poverty can have a huge impact on the people living in those households. "I think about it in terms of the kind of compromises that this forces upon people." Rezaei said. These can include compromises in home comfort, health, and basic dignity.   

While growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Salvador remembers what it was like to see neighbours on fixed income struggle with energy poverty. "It is really becoming used to that serious sacrifice. You may not be able to take a warm shower, to charge your phone even," she said. "It's that dread of opening that bill and seeing what it may present."

Salvador started the Renewable Energy transition Initiative to help people in Charlotte deal with energy poverty. Their work includes partnerships with local businesses and do-it-yourself energy conservation workshops in Charlotte to help people lower their energy bills.

Community Power, the organization Rezaei works for, does energy efficiency work as well as other community based energy programming for First Nations communities.
Maryam Rezaei (Maryam Rezaei)

This often includes work with remote communities that don't have access to the electrical grid. "For a majority of these communities electricity is generated using diesel, and the cost is about three  to 10 times higher than the cost of electricity that we buy on the grid."

Rezaei says they take a holistic approach to energy issues in the community. "Many communities come to us and they have affordability issues, they're concerned about winter cutoffs, they're concerned about their energy bills but they also want to reduce their environmental impacts," she said.

"They don't like the idea of running diesel for their electricity so they're interested in renewable energy generation."

A lot of their work focuses on energy efficiency. "If you do deep retrofits like changing windows, upgrading insulation, improving hot water measures in the house, we see reductions of about 30 percent in energy bills."   

That kind of energy savings can have a real impact on people's lives. Salvador says that taking steps to reduce the energy poverty "can also be a gateway into really starting that conversation of what financial empowerment can look like."