Energy Poverty: Choosing to Eat or Pay Heating Bills

helen

By: Helen Corbett
Dec 14th, 2015

A surprising number of Albertans are being left out in the cold… inside their own homes.

 
They are the energy poor, those hard pressed to pay their utility bills. Living in cold, damp homes impacts their health and well being, especially the elderly, young, disabled and those with long-term illnesses. Needless to say, they can ill afford the energy-efficiency measures that would improve their lives and benefit the environment.

 
About 455,000 Albertans live in energy poverty. These low-income families spend three times more disposable income on home energy—heating, cooking and lighting—than the average household. For the poorest, it’s more than 9 per cent of their after-tax income.

 
The energy poor must often make difficult choices between competing necessities such as energy, water, food and clothing. The most dramatic choice for some is to “heat or eat.” Indeed, evidence suggests the poorest households, especially among seniors, spend less on food in winter to pay for additional heating.

 
Living in cold homes can contribute to heart disease, reduced lung function, suppressed immune systems, asthma attacks and exacerbated arthritis. It is also associated with increased stress, social isolation and, for children, impaired educational success.

 
Energy poverty thus results in increased public costs for health care and social services. One study suggests that every $1 spent on raising living temperatures to acceptable standards saves 42 cents in health-care costs.

 
Elfreide and LarryAll One Sky Foundation recently released Energy Poverty: An Agenda for Alberta. The paper informed the low-income energy efficiency recommendations in the Government of Alberta’s recent Climate Leadership Plan. [hyperlink: alberta.ca/climate/] A low-income program is expected to address the inequalities of previous rebate programs that hurt poorer households, which ironically emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the norm.

 
The most cost-effective, sustainable solution to this problem is to increase the energy efficiency of energy-poor households, starting with those most in need. Realistically, this can only happen with substantial subsidies.

 

Many jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. operate and fund energy efficiency and conservation programs for low-income households. In Calgary, All One Sky Foundation has for several years operated a demonstration Energy Angel program, which provides energy-efficiency upgrades to the homes of low-income seniors.

 
But this is just a start for what needs to be a much more widespread effort. Tackling energy poverty in Alberta offers a potential win-win-win for three important environmental and social policy agendas: climate-change mitigation and greenhouse gas reduction; health and well being; and poverty alleviation.

 

Helen Corbett, Executive Director of All One Sky Foundation, has worked in the environmental non-profit world for over two decades, as a communications director, documentary filmmaker and journalist.

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