A worker wearing white leather gloves applies black acoustical sealant out to a window frame using a caulking gun. Pink fibreglass insulation is visible in the unfinished wall underneath the window, and a pair of safety goggles sits on the windowsill.
Photo — Erik Mclean on Unsplash

People hoping to make their homes more energy efficient may soon have help from Halifax after council’s environment committee voted in favour of a proposed pilot program offering financing for “deep energy retrofits.”

Municipal staff presented the idea to councillors on the Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee during their virtual meeting on Wednesday. It’s sort of an expansion of the Solar City program, which offers financing at a fixed rate of 4.75% over 10 years for residential or non-profit property owners to add solar energy systems to their buildings.

Uptake on that program has been decent, but not good enough. While more than 550 properties have used the financing, totalling nearly $14 million and enabling the installation of 5 megawatts of renewable energy, it’s no where near meeting the targets set out in the city’s one-year-old climate change action plan, HalifACT.

“For context, HalifACT requires nine times this amount per year to meet our targets,” municipal clean energy specialist Kevin Boutilier wrote in the report to the committee, referring to the 5 megawatts.

“In 2020, the total value of approved financing was 45% less than the financing provided in 2019. Based on industry observations and discussion, this reduction is likely due to alternative, lower interest financing options offered by some solar [contractors] and to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

To try to solve the financing issue, HRM has applied for a grant to evaluate the program.

“If successful, the study will evaluate the Solar City Program through a lens of equitable access, loan product competitiveness and the ability to scale to meet the targets of HalifACT,” Boutilier wrote.

“The intended results of this study are to develop minimum requirements for third-party lenders, private investors or utilities, to enable the investment needed to implement the retrofit goals of HalifACT.”

While working to improve the financing, the municipality’s climate change team has been looking at how it can be used for more than solar.

“The primary objective is to offer a program that will achieve a 50% reduction in energy demand for both residential and non-residential community buildings by 2040,” Boutilier wrote. “While existing programs have been successful, they need to be significantly expanded and scaled up to meet this objective.”

The program would provide people with assessments of their home’s insulation, air leakage, and heating or cooling systems, but Boutilier’s report said people typically don’t know what to do once they’ve received that kind of assessment. It’s too difficult for the average homeowner to seek out contractors to do the work, Boutilier wrote.

Staff are proposing to hire a navigator to guide homeowners through the process, municipal climate change specialist Taylor Owen explained to the committee.

“They would do the whole process, from the interest and doing an energy audit, and figuring out what measures make the most sense for that homeowner, and then also scheduling that work to happen so the homeowner doesn’t have to really think through who they need to hire to do all of the different work. That would be managed by the navigator,” Owen said.

“This navigator can also apply to rebates to the homeowner, get financing approved and make sure that everything happened, all in one place. There’s still a lot of questions of what this will look like and how it will come together.”

The financing program would cover windows, insulation, mechanical upgrades, and more. They’d be financed at the same terms as the solar program. And like Solar City, the property owner would be able to leave the financing on the home if they sell.

The upfront cost for HRM for the pilot project would be $3.5 million, although that money would be recovered, and it would start this fall.

Coun. Sam Austin suggested HRM should lower the interest rate it’s charging to make the program more attractive, even if that means dipping into tax money.

“The day for self-sufficient small steps is over and we need to move really fast on that,” Austin said. “And if that means making this really, really attractive so that we get the uptake we need to deliver HalifACT, well, that’s the cost that we’re just going to have to pay.”

The committee voted unanimously in favour of the staff recommendation. It now goes to regional council for a final vote.

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Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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