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National Observer: As energy costs rise, provinces urgently seek solutions - ACORN Canada

National Observer: As energy costs rise, provinces urgently seek solutions

Posted June 7, 2024

For Lisa Hayhurst, heating and cooling her home is a constant shuffle. Poor insulation and cracks in her floorboards allow energy to snake out, causing her power bill to skyrocket. She cranks the heat for short periods in the winter, doing her best to keep her rental at a livable temperature.

Hayhurst, who is chair of her local ACORN chapter, lives in Nova Scotia, the province with the highest rate of energy poverty, which is often defined as the point when people struggle to meet their homes’ energy needs. In some cases, it means not being able to pay other household bills or not having the means to adequately heat or cool homes. Last week, a report released by the Nova Scotia Energy Poverty Task Force recommended solutions for the province’s “energy poverty crisis.” The force was established in 2022 and includes multiple groups, such as the Ecology Action Centre and the province’s department of Natural Resources and Renewables.

The report, titled A Way Forward: A Made-in-Nova Scotia Home Energy Affordability Program, says a four-part solution would help a significant portion of the 43 per cent of Nova Scotians who have difficulties affording their energy bills:

  1. Apply energy bill discounts to people with low incomes
  2. Design a debt forgiveness program for power bills
  3. Create a crisis intervention fund that could help people pay their bills on a limited-time basis
  4. Expand energy efficiency and electrification supports for low- and moderate-income households

“In 40 years of experience in over 40 jurisdictions across North America, I’ve never seen an energy affordability situation as bad as Nova Scotia is in right now,” said Robert Colton, report author and utility affordability expert.

“Consistently low incomes and volatile spikes in home heating fuels have laid the groundwork for this crisis, but thankfully, there’s a way out.”

The province has the highest percentage of households — at 36 per cent — relying on fuel oil: the most expensive way to heat a home.


Other provinces also experience challenges with energy poverty, including Ontario, which the report pointed to as a province with a bill discount program. It notes the program provided energy relief to 212,000 low-income households in 2023. Depending on the household size, monthly credits of $35 to $113 are available to people, with the higher-end applying to Indigenous customers, people using electricity-intensive medical devices and others.

The program has made a difference in the province, explains Jacqueline Wilson of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. While Ontario doesn’t have as high a percentage of people experiencing energy poverty as Nova Scotia, it has the highest overall numbers at 1.1 million households.

The program is “something that we do have in Ontario that’s really strong,” and that is “needed in Nova Scotia to make things more affordable,” explained Wilson.

In Ontario, there are a total of 5.25 million electrical customers (which includes residential and small businesses), 450,000 of which rely on electrical heating. Meanwhile, 3.7 million people rely on natural gas. The bill discount program only applies to electricity users and Wilson said the program should be expanded to include households with other types of heating.

At the same time, government funding is needed to transition people off fossil fuels to reduce emissions and bills, said Wilson. However, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has passed legislation to support Enbridge in locking in gas customers for decades.

Ontario has a heat pump program for low-income households. In P.E.I., free heat pumps are available to people with an annual household net income of $75,000 or less; Nova Scotia has similar funding. All provinces and territories, except Alberta, have at least one energy efficiency program in place, though not all include heat pumps and vary in how much they help low-income households.

To Brian Gifford, chair of the Energy Poverty Task Force and the Affordable Energy Coalition, Nova Scotia implementing the measures “is just common sense.” He points to a recent survey by the province’s utility, which found that about three out of four homes experiencing energy poverty delayed paying for necessities such as groceries or medication to pay their bill.

“These are impossible decisions that nobody should have to make,” says Gifford.

“Everyone should be able to access energy without having to go without other basic needs. The recommendations in this report show us a way to get there.”

The federal government’s new Canada Greener Homes Affordability program will hopefully support some of the deep retrofits needed to lower energy bills across Canada, while bill support measures should be available to assist those currently experiencing energy poverty, explained Wilson.

Unlike its predecessor, the Canada Greener Homes Grant, the new program will target low and medium-income households. Details have yet to be announced, but Wilson hopes the federal measures will help fill gaps left by provincial programs. The benefits would be widespread across the country: recent research from McGill University found that one in five Canadians experience energy poverty.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, the province of Nova Scotia said it will “review” the report, and has already committed to “look at” Ontario’s model for bill discounts. The statement pointed to the Heating Assistance Rebate program, which gave over 100,000 people about $77 million in rebates in 2023, among other initiatives already underway to address energy poverty.

Article by Cloe Logan for National Observer