Canada needs an energy poverty strategy. Here’s what it might look like.

Professor Runa Das presenting her work at the Sussex Energy Group in October 2022.
Professor Runa R. Das

With COP27 now underway in Egypt,  the question of how to deliver a just transition is very much on the agenda. 

Greening a country’s economy in a way that’s fair and inclusive is a complex issue, with challenges that vary from country to country. But one issue many governments need to grapple with is energy poverty – the inability of households to adequately heat, cool, or light their homes.  

In October 2022, the David Suzuki Foundation released Keeping the Lights Ona pioneering new report on energy poverty in Canada, an important issue that’s still flying under the radar for  Canada’s policymakers. 

This report is co-authored by SEG Co-director Professor Mari Martiskainen and Dr Runa Das, an  Associate Professor at Royal Roads University. It sets out a series of actionable, evidence-based policy recommendations that could serve as a starting point for a Canadian energy poverty strategy. 

In October 2022, soon after the report’s launch, Das visited the Sussex Energy Group to tell us about her work. 

A changing energy landscape

Canada is making pretty good progress when it comes decarbonizing its electricity supply. It currently generates 82% of its electricity from non-emitting sources like hydro, nuclear, wind and solar. (In the UK, the percentage is a less impressive 55%).   

But unless they are carefully designed, energy transitions can make energy poverty worse. This is because they can make costs go up, at least in the short term. If we electrify our heating and transportation systems, for example, we’re increasing electricity demand. And increased demand can create a spike in energy prices.  Moving to a different system can also have big upfront costs, as new technologies like solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars aren’t cheap. 

Filling in the blanks

Canada doesn’t yet officially recognise energy poverty in its statistics, or have strategies for reducing it. That’s why this new report is particularly useful. A mix of quantitative and qualitative data, it not only helps flesh out the extent and character of energy poverty in Canada, but also offers clear guidance on how to tackle it.  

Das and Martiskainen estimate that between 7%  and 9% of Canadian households are living in energy poverty, depending on how you measure it. It’s also particularly concentrated in the Atlantic provinces. When factoring in housing costs, the percentage of households in energy poverty can climb as high as 24% in Prince Edward Island, and 23% in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

A graphic showing energy poverty rates in each Canadian province. It shows that rates are particularly high in the Atlantic provinces

The report also opens a window into what it’s like to live in energy poverty – with the all the acute stress, discomfort, shame, embarrassment, and even health problems it leads to.  Here is what some interviewees said about living in energy poverty: 

…I don’t like bringing my friends over here, it’s very rare that I bring anybody over here. I’m really like embarrassed, unless it’s evening and it’s like kinda dark and then they can’t see anything really, and then they’re like, oh it’s so nice in here, we should come more often. It’s like, no. So. But yeah, no, it… you know, it’d be nice to have like movie night and stuff, but I worry because there is mould and I’ve had, like I’ve had like some lung issues before.

– Sarah

I read it, I just to look at what it’s, like $200, you know, a month. And then more, ’cos actually really I don’t pay very close attention. I’m afraid to, you know that’s like, you know when you’re afraid to look at your bills, you’re just, no okay… paycheque has come in, and okay, this this this, paid, and then go.

– Matthew

Winter you always, you know, I’m trying to manage with blankets, you know? When it’s very cold. For sure the most problem comes when we are going to sleep, because it’s very cold, it’s very hard so just trying to wear socks on your feet, get more blankets for covering, and managing in a way, you know?

– Shruti

Four things Canada’s policymakers could start doing right away

Using the full range of the data they gathered, Das and Martiskainen also generate a series  policy steps that governments could take right away to start tackling energy poverty both in the short and long term.  These recommendations are clustered around four distinct priorities:

  1. Adopting an explicit energy poverty strategy
  2. Providing a universal (clean) energy service that includes cooling as well as heating services
  3. Ensuring energy is affordable 
  4. Decarbonizing and making residential buildings more energy efficient 

If you’d like to find out more about energy poverty in Canada, or what might be done about it, check out the full report here.

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