It’s been almost 20 years since the Affordable Energy Coalition first proposed a break for low-income households on their electricity bills. This past January, with power rates set to rise almost 14% over two years, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB) ordered Nova Scotia Power, the Affordable Energy Coalition, and government officials to sit down and come up with a way forward.
The first meeting of this Low-Income Advisory Group finally took place three weeks ago after repeated reminders and gentle nagging from Brian Gifford, a founding member of the Affordable Energy Coalition. On Tuesday, Gifford told a legislative committee meeting called to discuss the cost-of-living impact on energy poverty, he sees this as “the best chance in 20 years” to tackle energy poverty.
“Energy efficiency has the potential to eliminate energy poverty in Nova Scotia. We must keep investing in low-income efficiency programs and build all new buildings to the highest efficiency standards,” Gifford told the committee.
“Meanwhile, we can create a systematic program to reduce the energy bills of low-income and modest households while they wait for deep energy upgrades.”
37% of Nova Scotians experiencing energy poverty
Gifford said Ontario has a program that gives low-income ratepayers a credit on their power bill — dependent on the household’s income and size — to reduce what the tenant or homeowner pays to the electric utility. When the Ontario Electricity Support program began in 2017, power rates went up slightly to fund the subsidy. Controversy eventually led the cost of the program to shift to the provincial government, which pays for it out of general revenues. Gifford said in the United States, several utilities use the “on bill credit” idea to assist low-income ratepayers, but in the U.S. the cost is carried by ratepayers. The creation of even a short-term program to assist low-income households with rising energy costs will require an amendment to the Public Utilities Act, a measure for which the NDP has been an advocate.
Energy poverty is defined as a household spending more than 6% of its after-tax income on energy, so we’re talking about the total spent on electricity and heating bills. Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell told the committee that 40% of the citizens in his town fall into that category. That’s slightly more than the 37% of Nova Scotians experiencing energy poverty cited by Joy Knight, the executive director of employment support and income assistance with the Department of Community Services. Mitchell said Bridgwater has been working hard at accessing energy-efficiency programs available through Efficiency One to upgrade the energy-efficiency of homes and apartment buildings to lower their electricity consumption.
4% of NSP customers at risk of being disconnected
“I often tell people that power rates will continue to go up, but your energy bills can actually come down,” said Chris Benjamin, the senior energy coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre.
Benjamin knows that depends on homeowners and renters having both awareness and access to programs available through EfficiencyOne. Benjamin would like to see better linkage between consumers who are behind on their payments to Nova Scotia Power or Irving Oil with access to free programs such as the Homeowners Energy Audit and HomeWarming offered through EfficiencyOne. Benjamin would like to see EfficiencyOne hire a navigator to talk directly to consumers and guide them through the maze of programs featured on its website.
Nova Scotia Power sent three senior managers to the legislative committee meeting. Chris Lanteigne, the director of customer care at Nova Scotia Power, was asked how many residential customers in 2023 have had their power cut off for non-payment of bills. Lanteigne said 2,825 households have been disconnected so far this year. He claims that number is back to where it was prior to the pandemic, when the utility provided people with more time to pay.
The number of disconnects is much higher than the 1,500 last year before the rate hike and the jump in oil prices. Lanteigne said part of the reason is because in 2022 the company didn’t cut anybody off in April — traditionally a month where temperatures rise above zero — nor in October following Hurricane Fiona.
Lanteigne told the MLAs on Tuesday roughly 4% or 21,000 of Nova Scotia Power’s 525,000 customers are currently in arrears and at risk of being disconnected. Legislation forbids the utility to disconnect people during months when the temperature remains below zero.
Lia MacDonald is Nova Scotia Power’s vice-president of customer experience. MacDonald said “Nova Scotia Power knows people are struggling and is committed to addressing these pressures.”
MacDonald said the company has a low-income advocate who deals with 4,000 requests a year. She said as a result of ongoing conversation with the Affordable Energy Coalition and the consumer advocate, Nova Scotia Power is considering several key recommendations. These include “providing energy-efficiency options to clients who are behind in their bills, easing payments on prior amounts owed when reconnecting customers experiencing homelessness, and reviewing our security deposit policy as they can be a barrier to low-income people getting reconnected.”
Surge in demand for EfficiencyOne programs
EfficiencyOne has experienced a surge in demand for all programs connected to energy efficiency, and has processed as many requests for home energy audits in the first six months of 2023 as in all of 2022. Millions of federal and provincial dollars to buy heat pumps for low- and modest-income households led to 20,000 applications so far this year.*
EfficiencyOne CEO and president Stephen MacDonald said at this point, the agency has “caught up with the backlog.” MacDonald said he believes concerns about flooding and fires related to climate change, in combination with higher electric bills, have created greater demand, especially for insulation, solar panels, and heat pumps. MacDonald claims a mini-split heat pump can reduce energy bills between 15% to 25% a year. EfficiencyOne also offers to pay for up to 80% of the upgrades* for multi-unit apartment buildings.
According to Benjamin and MacDonald, the hitch with that program is that landlords who participate must agree not to raise rents for a dozen years. Given the current low-vacancy in the housing market, this program hasn’t developed much traction.
Gifford said when oil prices soared last year, the provincial government’s decision to increase the Heating Assistance Rebate Program (HARP) from $250 to $1,000 a household was “a huge help” for thousands of Nova Scotians, especially those who heat with furnace oil. With the rise in rent, food, and electricity costs since then, Gifford said “we can only hope” the province will find the money to extend that heating assistance rebate this year. Energy poverty and the housing crisis are connected, Gifford said. People who own or rent a home, but cannot afford to pay for heat and lights, may be only a bill or two away from finding themselves out on the street, suddenly homeless.
*A previous version of this story included errors regarding the number of applications for home energy audits, as well as an error in the amount of funding offered by EfficiencyOne to upgrades on multi-unit buildings. We regret the errors.