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The Progressive Economics Forum

Fighting energy poverty and the transition to zero-emission housing

Today CCPA released a new Climate Justice Project report, Fighting Energy Poverty in the Transition to Zero-Emission Housing: A Framework for BC, by yours truly, Eugene Kung (a lawyer with the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre and a steering committee member of the CJP) and Jason Owen (who worked on this project as a student at UBC, now with the City of Surrey). The full report as well as a stand-alone summary are available here.

This has been one of the more challenging research projects I’ve engaged in to date. It is the first attempt I have seen anywhere to bring together research in different fields – home energy efficiency, climate change and energy poverty – towards a coherent action plan. In particular, we look at BC Hydro’s pricing policies and model distributional impacts, and we take a closer look at energy efficiency retrofit programs. We then outline a series of next steps for BC that strive for win-win outcomes that reduce energy poverty and create green jobs (about 12,000 direct jobs per year) in the context of aggressive climate action.

I have an oped in today’s Vancouver Sun:

Power policy should protect low-income households

By Marc Lee

If BC is going to meet its climate action targets, the province needs to shift away from natural gas and rely instead on clean electricity. Coupled with aggressive conservation and energy efficiency investments, this transition could be the source of new green jobs, particularly in the residential housing sector.

The challenge is this: while upper-income households tend to consume (and waste) more energy, it is low-income households who spend a larger share of their incomes on energy, and are the most constrained in terms of changing their behaviour.

This means that across-the-board price increases can worsen energy poverty, a condition where a household spends a disproportionate share of their income on energy. Living in energy poverty poses a range of health risks, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and other health problems, as well as preventable winter deaths.

BC Hydro’s proposal earlier this year to dramatically increase electricity rates is a case in point. While a recent review of BC Hydro led to compromise that would slow rate increases for the next couple of years, higher prices are to some extent inevitable due to the higher costs of new electricity supplies, the installation of smart meters, and new capital projects.

More than three-quarters of energy in the home is used for temperature control and hot water. For low-income households – especially ones with electric baseboard heaters – the real issue is keeping the heat on.

Lower-income households already spend a greater share of their income on energy. The bottom 20% of households spent 5% of their total income on energy in 2009, and 3% of income just on electricity. Households in the top 20% spent only 1.5% of their total income on energy, and less than 1% on electricity.

But BC Hydro also shows us what a fairer path could look like. The shift to two-tier pricing in 2008 has moved modestly in this direction, with modest savings for low-income households and increases for higher-income households. The greediest 20% of electricity consumers use up 44% of the residential power, and they should indeed pay more.

If electricity price increases are needed, they should be concentrated on the second tier of rates. Increasing refundable tax credits for low- to middle-income households could also offset price increases. Assessing the impacts of pricing policies across income levels needs to be part of the BC Utilities Commission’s rate approval process.

The BC government can also help by delivering targeted energy efficiency programs for low-income households and multi-unit buildings, including rental units. Low-income households are typically renters. This means they are less likely to have capacity to invest in energy efficiency upgrades.

Currently, the vast majority of public subsidies for retofits (for example, BC’s LiveSmart program) goes to affluent homeowners in single-family dwellings. Existing programs have been criticized for two common problems: free rider effects (public subsidies going to households who would have made investments anyway) and rebound effects (where savings are offset by increased energy use).

In contrast, well-designed programs for energy efficiency for low-income households are “low-hanging fruit” that would dramatically reduce these effects, target some of the province’s least efficient housing stock, and make better use of public dollars.

A danger is that electricity price hikes will create a perverse incentive for people to switch to natural gas for their home heating. In the Lower Mainland, the delivered cost of natural gas is about half the cost of the lower tier electricity rate and 39% of the tier two rate.

But this would add to BC’s greenhouse gas inventory at a time when the province needs to reduce and eventually eliminate those emissions. This should be a key component of a next generation LiveSmart program for BC, and it should also be linked to green job creation and skills development.

We estimate a budget of $220 million per year in support of a decade-long retrofit of BC’s housing stock would lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions and energy poverty in BC homes. Carbon tax revenues are an ideal source of public subsidies for such a program.

This investment would lead to 12,000 direct green jobs per year (and a total increase in employment of 20,000 jobs if we include indirect and induced job creation).

The challenge of the next generation is to enable a smooth transition to zero-emissions housing, while paying attention to impacts on low-income households and other vulnerable populations, as well as the housing stock where they live.

Rather than trying to sell more polluting fossil fuels to Asia, the BC government should be leading the charge on climate action. A coherent housing strategy could provide win-win opportunities for the province, and is the type of jobs program BC needs.

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Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: September 28, 2011, 11:27 am

Great work. We have been moving into a whole new era, its not just about fighting over the sharing of goods, we are now in the growing struggle of allocating the bads. Sadly we are moving quite fast now, into a even Riskier society. When you mix energy, poverty and environment we are getting even more lopsided. I have heard that many feel the environment cannot be commidified. I agree at some level even the wealthy are effected by eco degradation, however it is not symetrical. In fact it is somekind of backwards/upside down commidification, where the bads go to poorest. Just watching a documentary on ewaste workers in a developing country. Definitely fantastically sickly disturbed way to expect people to exist. Yet somehow- in many places these people struggle forward as their bodies absorb the bads a whole lot more.

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