From the Catalyst, Summer 2017
Energy poverty in Canada is not new. I can recall stories from my relatives about winters in their childhood, waking up to thick frost on the inside of their windows and heating bricks in wood stoves to keep their beds warm. That was a while ago, though not that long.
While sufficient and reliable energy use is more common in Canada now, not everyone can access or afford the energy that many of us take for granted.
We have all heard about or know people struggling to pay high monthly energy bills, some costing more than their mortgages. Many have to choose between paying for heating or for basic necessities, like food or shelter. Others are experiencing sporadic blackouts and fuel shortages. Some regions depend more on oil or diesel, while others have added delivery and infrastructure development costs. As energy costs rose over the last several years, public awareness has grown.
But it’s important to distinguish a few aspects of the energy poverty discussion. To start, people experience different kinds of energy poverty. Some lack dependable access to energy while others experience increasing and unaffordable energy costs.
Those in the first category are highly represented by Indigenous communities, particularly Inuit and Northern communities. Many simply do not have the infrastructure in place for cheaper, or cleaner, energy use.
There are an estimated 200 communities in Canada that do not have access to an energy grid and rely on diesel and generators for their heating and electricity. Many of these homes are energy inefficient, and communities cannot easily access support programs for renovations.
For these communities, energy poverty is a crisis that impacts their ability to meet basic needs, sustain their economies, and address serious health issues.
The second kind of energy poverty is experienced when households spend 10 per cent or more of their income on home energy costs, or they lack adequate affordable services for their well-being.
While all of us may be experiencing increased energy costs, those who are already are struggling to make ends meet are highly vulnerable to additional expenses. Access to affordable and reliable energy is certainly key to addressing energy poverty. The other essential factor to consider is climate change.
Addressing climate change requires urgent action in order to prevent the worst of its impacts. This means both significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation efforts to protect communities from the impacts that are already being felt.
It also requires transitioning to a green economy and developing sustainable infrastructure – measures that could increase energy costs. But if done with care and consideration for both vulnerable populations and the environment, a just transition could address these twin challenges in a way that promotes the well-being of people and the planet. In any case, it is essential that governments make this transition in a way that does not place a further burden on those who are living in poverty.
Climate change already impacts those who are poor and marginalized disproportionately, including people living in Canada’s Arctic region.
There are some important steps that governments can take to address energy poverty in Canada, while recognizing that climate action is urgently needed.
- Address income security issues by offering subsidies and tax credits to those who are unable to afford increased energy costs.
- Provide support to projects that are using local workers, particularly in remote Indigenous communities, to build sustainable energy infrastructure and energy efficient housing.
- Regulate energy costs to ensure that households are not subject to spikes in costs, particularly in peak use seasons.
- Continue to make it easier and cheaper for households to reduce energy costs, through retrofitting and energy efficient appliances, and through low-income energy efficiency programs.
- Reinstate legislation to support a national low-income energy program.
The experience of energy poverty offers important insights into the ways in which vulnerable Canadians face challenges across a range of issues. However, it also signals how creative solutions, and a holistic approach to public policy, can serve to meet these challenges to the benefit of all.