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Our Homes Are Hurting The Environment. Here's How The Next Government Could Fix It

From staking vampire power to funding low-income retrofits, we can stop Canadian homes from wasting electricity and leaking energy.

This campaign season, HuffPost Canada is going past the sales pitch, away from the attacks and beyond the ballot.

Our Beyond the Ballot series is deep diving into three major problems facing Canadians: climate change, housing insecurity, and elder care. This election is our opportunity to join forces and figure out how to solve them.

Climate change may be on every Canadian politician's radar, but while they argue on the campaign trail about what to do (or not do) about carbon emissions, what too often gets short shrift outside of Green Party stump speeches is the most effective short-term solution to curtailing energy use — conservation and efficiency.

"It's hard, because it's not something that you can see," Alexandra Campbell, spokeswoman for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator, told the Huffington Post Canada. "But once you do that, you realize it is one of the most cost-effective ways to meet future power needs, and it can be done without sacrificing anything."

Perhaps the effort requiring the least personal sacrifice is known as Phantom Load, Vampire Power or, less dramatically, Standby Power, the modern phenomenon in which our electronics and appliances draw electricity even when they're not being used.

It sounds trivial.

It isn’t.

The average home has as many as 40 of these products. Natural Resources Canada estimates that this represents between five and 10 per cent of our household electricity usage. Other estimates peg it at as high as 15 per cent for residential and 20 per cent for commercial.

The International Energy Agency says the worldwide standby power use accounts for enough energy to power 80 per cent of Canada's energy needs.

So it's a lot. In Canada, we're looking at about 5.5 terawatt hours annually, which costs consumers about $1.5 billion and causes about 7.5 megatonnes of carbon emissions.

"When you go out to residential stuff, it's very important to prioritize what you're going after," said Tom Rand, senior clean technology adviser at MaRS. "Phantom load is a large amount of power, but, to go after it, you're going to have to ask homeowners to take all of their appliances and rewire them on to a circuit that actually shuts the power off.

"It can be done, but you're herding cats in a way."

Governments can, and should, ramp up their awareness campaigns, but that works only to a degree, Rand warns.

"The irony is that people bitch and moan about their electricity bills, but the options people have to reduce those costs are very simple and don't take a lot of effort," he said.

The other, bigger, weapon in the government's arsenal is regulation.

"I'm normally a fan of market signals, because then the creativity of the market comes into play. But there are obviously cases where regulation is the simplest way. Like seatbelts in cars — the auto industry said they couldn't possibly afford it, but that's absurd. Like Energy Star — the industry wouldn't have got together and said ‘We're going to review the energy use of our equipment compared to our competitors.’ They would never have agreed to that. Regulation has a crucial role in consumer devices."

4 Paths to Energy Conservation

  • Regulation and education to reduce phantom power waste.
  • PACE loans for efficiency efforts tied to property not owner.
  • Expand EnerGuide Home rating program.
  • Federal funding and expertise to retrofit low-income housing nationwide.

California has been the world leader on this front, using the size of its economy and population to pass energy efficiency standards on consumer electronics such as TVs as far back as 2004. In 2012, the government passed battery charger legislation it says will reduce wasted energy by 40 per cent, saving $300 million annually and eliminating one million tonnes of carbon emissions.

The IEA is calling for all governments to pass laws limiting standby power to one watt or less, which the Toronto Star reports is the standard required in Canada for appliances to qualify for Energy Star rating. There are also minimum standards set for certain audio, TV and video devices, limiting them to three or four watts if manufactured after May 2011 and dropping to between 0.5 and two watts (if they have a display) if manufactured after January 2013.

Still, these regulations could be strengthened and broadened to encompass the increasingly wide array of network-connected devices. The Victoria Times-Colonist drew specific attention to the issue of PVRs as well as video game consoles. Both often rest somewhere between standby and full power.

"We're now looking at ways to minimize that power mode and continue with that responsiveness. It's a difficult thing to put regulations in for," John Cockburn, equipment program director in the Office of Energy Efficiency, told the newspaper last fall.

Rand would also like to see an expansion of the EnerGuide program for homes so that more prospective buyers know exactly what the energy rating of a house is. This can add to its resale value and make spending on energy efficiency upgrades worthwhile even if the owner doesn't plan to live there long enough to recover the initial expense.

"I buy a dishwasher, I know what it's energy rating is. Same thing when buying a house, it's not different," he said. "The government's role should be in standardizing information so that everybody trusts it."

He said another way to encourage homeowners to spend on their homes now is U.S.-style PACE loans because this "property-assessed clean energy" financing is attached to the property, not the owner.

“With homeowners, you can't make decisions for them. That's their home. But what you can do is provide information and provide incentives and provide financial tools for them to make a decision."

But the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to residential energy is low-income housing. The efficiency issues with low-income housing are manifold. The buildings tend to be old. The Canadian Environmental Law Association reports that half of such housing in Canada was built before 1980 and more than 75 per cent of the lowest income group in Canada lives in this housing. (CELA also found that many of these homes use expensive electric heating and that retrofits offer health benefits for low-income residents.)

And the people who live in these homes are either tenants or owners who can't afford the capital expenditure to retrofit.

One solution, said Zee Bhanji of the Low-Income Energy Network (LIEN), would be to resurrect the EnerGuide for Low-Income Households (EGLIH) program, a $500-million, five-year program that was designed to help 130,000 households suffering from poor insulation and inefficient heating in permanently reducing their energy bills by about 30 per cent.

Though passed by the last Liberal government in 2005, it was scrapped by Stephen Harper's Conservative government the following year.

It was replaced by the ecoEnergy Retrofit-Homes program — which gave grants for renovations like insulation and windows but didn't specifically target low-income Canadians — but that too was cut in 2010 when it apparently proved to be too popular. It was briefly revived for nine months in 2012 before being chopped again, this time with funds left unspent.

There are provincial programs picking up some of the slack, like the Ontario Energy Board's Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) and Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP), as well as low-income assistance through gas and electrical utilities (though that tends to leave out the rural poor).

"The federal government played a really important role and can do so again by investing in these programs," said CELA's Kathleen Cooper. "There is need for action at different jurisdictional levels, but that federal role is crucial, especially in terms of money and expertise... that just evaporated in terms of being deployed across the country because of the ecoEnergy program being defunded.

"But it's still there and needs to be used."

In the meantime, Rand notes that the various levels of government are the country's biggest landlords and that they own "some of the leakiest housing in the country." They could set about retrofitting public housing right away, even if it won't necessarily win votes or wow the media.

"Retrofitting low-income housing is not sexy,” he says, suggesting the government should retrofit 500,000 units with the costs being made up for by the eventual energy savings. “Now you're hunting big game."

Then again, maybe it could sway voters if they sold it right.

"It's a massive job creator," Rand added. "All those plumbers and electricians and tradesmen are in Canada, so it's very efficient from an economic perspective.

"You want to talk about the economy? Could be a few people wearing spacesuits building the next-generation microchip, but there's gonna be thousands of people crawling over rooftops, going into attics putting up new windows. You want to talk about jobs? That's where jobs come from."

Actually, at least one party leader already agrees.

At the Maclean’s debate in August, Elizabeth May called for "an army of carpenters, electricians and contractors" going out to plug leaky buildings.

"Thirty per cent of carbon pollution comes from the energy we waste and the money we waste heating the outdoors in the winter and cooling it in the summer," she said.

Joshua Ostroff is senior editor for HuffPost Canada.

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