Time to reboot municipal/provincial approach to residential energy conservation

My Clean Break column in the Toronto Star this weekend takes a closer look at “local improvement charge” models for financing deep residential energy-efficiency retrofits. Subsidy/rebate programs help address the low-hanging fruit, but it’s time to move beyond light bulbs and shower heads and into programs that go after more substantial efficiency gains. To a large extent, this isn’t about handing out more subsidy dollars as much as enabling municipal financing models that are revenue-neutral to taxpayers and impose little (or zero) additional burden on ratepayers.


Tyler Hamilton

What is the province doing to help homeowners conserve energy and cope with rising electricity prices?

Not much these days.

Ontario’s earlier commitment to match rebates under the federal government’s program has long expired. The program was extended to March 31, 2012, but the province decided to pull its support.

Instead, we got the Clean Energy Benefit – a 10 per cent rebate on electricity bills that will be in place until 2015 at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion a year.

That’s money that could have gone toward conservation programs. Now it’s being used to undermine conservation by giving consumers less reason to care about energy wastefulness.

It’s hardly a sustainable approach. Clearly, the only way to help Ontario ratepayers cope with rising electricity rates over the long term is to push for deep energy conservation in households across the provinces.

And here’s the thing: it could, if done properly, barely cost anything for the province and municipalities to make such a serious conservation push.

It turns out that a lack of subsidies isn’t the biggest thing holding back major residential energy-efficiency projects; it’s the lack of affordable and easy-to-access financing.

It’s also about the lack of willingness on the part of provincial and municipal leaders to embrace programs that have already had successful test drives south of the border.

These programs come under a variety of names, but at their core is the ability of a municipality to raise cheap capital through a bond issue and then offer low-interest financing to homeowners wanting to do major energy-efficiency retrofits.

Under such a model, the homeowner repays the city (with interest) over 15 to 20 years through a type of “local improvement charge” added to property tax bills. The idea is that the permanent energy savings from the retrofit would more than cover the cost of repayment.

Also, the charge is tied to the home, not the owner, so doesn’t add to personal debt load. When an owner sells the property the new owner takes over the charge but also gains the benefit of having lower monthly energy costs in a climate of rising prices.

“There’s huge interesting in this approach, from people at all levels of government,” says Sonja Persram, president of Sustainable Alternatives Consulting Inc. in Toronto.

She says 26 U.S. states have already changed legislation to permit this kind of municipal financing, and late last year Nova Scotia made similar changes in support of a solar-thermal installation program in Halifax.

“It can be delivered at no cost to municipalities, and some municipalities have been looking at having programs that are even slightly revenue-positive,” she adds.

Under contract with the David Suzuki Foundation, Persram spent the past two years studying the approach, which she calls Property-Assessed Payments for Energy Retrofits, or PAPER for short. Her findings were published in three reports that came out in April, May and August.

The research has been well received in both financial and building appraisal communities, and earlier this year the Toronto Real Estate Board passed a motion supporting creation of a PAPER program for Ontario.

There is a big roadblock, however, and this is where the province plays a crucial role. Toronto and other municipalities can’t offer this kind of financing unless Ontario moves, like Nova Scotia did, to pass enabling legislation.

Queen’s Park would also need to assuage the concerns of mortgage lenders. After all, if you as a homeowner get $30,000 in municipal financing to retrofit your home, a bank might not like that the lien for that amount placed on your property takes priority over a mortgage in the event of default.

(Such a concern raised by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the U.S. has effectively brought all PAPER-like residential programs to a standstill until legal issues are resolved).

The province would have to make clear to all parties that it wouldn’t be the entire $30,000 that gets priority over the mortgage, but only any defaulted payments on that financed amount. That’s because once the property is sold, the new owner would take over the remainder of the retrofit financing.

“In order for such a program to work here you have to have the province, the financial institutions and the City of Toronto all sitting in the same room talking about this issue,” says Tim Stoate, an associate director and investment expert at the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. “I don’t think that conversation has happened.”

It needs to happen if the McGuinty government wants to pay more than lip-service to its energy conservation goals. It is unlikely happen, at least not at a scale that matters, if the province doesn’t step in as chief facilitator and coordinator.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him at tyler@cleanbreak.ca

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