How can Canadians be energy poor?

A woman poses for a head shot. She has long brown hair and wears a patterned scarf.

Action starts with understanding and a Royal Roads University researcher is hoping her work on understanding energy poverty will help spur action in Canada and beyond.

Assoc. Prof. Runa Das, along with Mari Martiskainen of the University of Sussex (UK) Business School, RRU colleague Julie MacArthur and research assistant Lindsey Bertrand, recently published a paper titled A Review and Analysis of Initiatives Addressing Energy Poverty and Vulnerability in Ontario, Canada in the journal Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews.

“Energy poverty is this idea of the inability to access and achieve adequate levels of social and material needs through energy services — the important things that energy fundamentally provides,” explains Das, a core faculty member of Royal Roads’ College of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Practically, that may mean people aren’t comfortable in their homes due to drafts, air leakage, lack of energy efficiency. It may also mean that people can’t afford their energy bills, so they are forced to reduce their consumption of energy for heating, cooling and cooking. Income, dwelling conditions and geography are among the factors that put people in a position of energy poverty, she says.

With an eye to the UN Sustainable Development Goals #7 (UN SDG7)— “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” — Das and her colleagues examined 15 years of policies and initiatives designed to assist energy poor and energy vulnerable households in Ontario, Canada during 2003 to 2018. They found some government action in the areas of financial support, consumer protection, and energy efficiency and savings, but no concerted efforts under the umbrella of energy poverty.

Findings included:

  • Financial support addressed affordability or provided emergency assistance to help households with electricity costs;
  • consumer protection assisted households with arrears payment assistance, budgeted billing and waiving of security deposits; and
  • energy efficiency and savings “primarily addressed climate change mitigation by targeting the building stock as well as a home’s interior (lights, appliances and other household items),” according to Das’ report.

“Attempts have been made to either address energy costs, inefficient housing, or low incomes,” the paper states. “This lacks the understanding that those who are in energy poverty could be suffering, due to the costs of energy and inefficient housing and low incomes.”

As well, Das says many government initiatives targeted homeowners, but not renters, who comprise a large proportion of the population and are also susceptible to energy poverty. Programs that offer low-interest loans and grants for people to increase energy efficiency in their homes, often require up-front payment, something that is impossible for most low-income Canadians.

Days says policy makers need to consider all these nuances to act.

“I don’t think we can truly address the problem if we don’t understand it,” she says. “Otherwise, when we try to address it, it’s just lip service. If we’re putting money toward this kind of stuff, if we’re trying to figure it out, let’s try and do it properly.”

Das says that includes determining how best to address the split between renters and homeowners.

“This whole [UN SDG7] idea of reliability, affordability and access to modern energy services, we want everyone to be able to benefit from that,” Das says. “The idea is to not leave people behind.”

Read the full report online.