Energy savings help the poor
TheStar.com – Opinion – Energy savings help the poor
March 22, 2009
High-efficiency furnaces and programmable thermostats, better insulation and greener refrigerators help reduce energy, which benefits us all.
But what of low-income Ontarians, who live in some of the least energy efficient homes, yet can’t afford to do anything about it? Many are struggling just to keep the lights and heat on. They’re in the greatest need of the savings that come from energy efficiencies. As a province struggling with the need for new power generation to keep up with demand, we need everyone to reduce their consumption.
So it’s good news that the Ontario Energy Board, which regulates the natural gas and electricity sectors, has put some thought into how to address this quandary.
It has announced a package of programs, notably a $5 million emergency fund starting this winter to help those who can’t pay the bills. Distributors will also have to be more flexible when dealing with low-income earners who fall into arrears. This makes good sense. If someone already has trouble paying their bill, why compound the problem by charging a hefty late fee or large deposit to get service turned back on?
These are welcome measures to assist low-income Ontarians. But what’s more interesting, and could ultimately prove far more helpful, is an energy board plan focused on the long term. The best way to help the poor help themselves is to ensure more affordable bills down the road. The board hopes to do that by targeting low-income Ontarians for reductions in consumption, and energy efficiency programs.
This is especially important right now because energy price increases are inevitable. As Ontario moves forward with plans to develop greener sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, the costs are projected to rise.
It’s welcome that the energy board – after losing a court battle – is finally taking responsibility for affordability as part of its mandate to set energy rates. But there are some stumbling blocks that will have to be worked through in the next few months while the board, with social services agencies, comes up with the specific details of its conservation program.
It must bear in mind that Ontario’s poorest tend to be renters, not homeowners. Giving them a programmable thermostat doesn’t achieve much if the heating system, run by an inefficient 40-year-old boiler in the basement, is beyond their control. Many don’t even have separate heat controls in their apartments. And an even greater number have utilities included in their rent.
That’s why landlords must be part of the equation. And that’s a role the energy board rightly says the province will have to take on.
Making it possible for low-income Ontarians to participate in our new culture of conservation is a positive move, but steps must be taken to ensure public money doesn’t merely improve balance sheets for landlords, by ensuring the savings are passed through to tenants for whom affordability is key.
Sarah Blackstock, a founding member of the Low-Income Energy Network, which forced the energy board to act, is pleased with the announced programs but adds: “We still have a long way to go to ensure that all Ontarians have access to green, affordable energy.”
Finally, though, Ontario is starting down the necessary road.