Energy efficiency programs can change the energy poverty conversation

Prevailing narratives about energy poverty don't capture the whole picture, or the role efficiency can play

Madeleine Chauvin

Former Policy Intern at Efficiency Canada, MREM Candidate

February 23, 2021

Blog | Guest Blog | News

  • 20% of Canadian households face high energy burdens, as increasingly being reported in newspapers under the theme of “energy poverty”
  • Energy poverty is frequently blamed on carbon pricing and renewable energy transitions in the media, and a lack of grid access as contributors
  • Energy efficiency programming presents an alternative narrative by presenting tangible solutions to energy poverty 

Energy poverty is a concept that was developed to describe the situation in which households face financial difficulties or inadequate heating or cooling as a result of the costs of energy services or a lack of access, making it a separate issue from income poverty. It is defined as a household that spends 6% of its income on household energy costs (excluding transportation), double the average Canadian household which spends 3% of their income on energy. By this measure, about 20% of Canadian households are in energy poverty. This definition has been widely accepted by and used by other advocacy groups and academics.

In order to better understand the energy poverty conversation in Canada, I conducted a thematic media analysis, which examined the ways that five different Canadian newspapers discussed energy poverty (The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Vancouver Sun, the Toronto Star, and The Chronicle Herald).

A media analysis can be a helpful way to understand how the general public understands and feels about a certain issue because the media plays a large role in disseminating complex topics to the general public. They influence the way that the public thinks about an issue by choosing which issues to talk about, as well as how to frame the issue. Therefore, looking at a few different newspapers can help us understand how energy poverty is being discussed, and if this discussion presents real and tangible solutions to alleviate high energy burdens in Canada.

I analyzed 86 articles published from 2006 to 2020. I found that the articles typically had three main themes, which were identifying the definition of energy poverty, discussing the causes of it, and exploring some solutions.

Carbon pricing and renewable energy blamed

Approximately 44% of the articles identified energy price increases as the main cause of energy poverty, with renewable energy (22%) and carbon pricing (25%) identified as the main causes of these increases. This narrative was prominent in the Toronto Star and the National Post. The authors of these articles frequently used energy poverty as a reason to not pursue renewable energy projects and carbon pricing as a result of the steep price increases Ontarians faced between 2009-2016. The argument was usually that these policies aimed at addressing climate change increased energy prices to unsustainable amounts, and forced many Canadians, but primarily Ontarians, into energy poverty.

Many of these articles did not identify energy inefficiency or a lack of grid access as reasons for energy poverty, despite these factors being widely accepted in academia as reasons people experience high energy burdens. At the same time, these articles did not typically offer any solutions, such as efficiency programs, income supports, or emergency debt relief, which are prominently discussed in the academic and public policy literature. The sole solutions offered involved cancelling renewable energy projects or carbon pricing. 

Energy efficiency programs create solutions-oriented narrative

It was more common for regional papers to provide concrete solutions to energy poverty. It is well understood that energy efficiency programs are effective solutions to alleviate energy poverty, if programs are specifically designed for low-income populations and public policies mandate that low-income programs are well funded.

The Chronicle Herald discussed solutions to energy poverty the most, highlighting existing programs offered through Efficiency Nova Scotia, the Clean Foundation, and the recent Smart Cities grant received by the Town of Bridgewater that will go towards addressing energy poverty. These articles highlighted the programs, noting why they were needed and successful, and how they could be replicated in other areas. The Efficiency Canada provincial scorecards showed that Nova Scotia has some of the highest low-income program spending per household.

This analysis suggests that a more conscious effort to address energy poverty through efficiency programming increases media coverage of these solutions. This highlights the importance of regional newspapers expanding awareness of services available in local jurisdictions. It also shows jurisdictions with robust low-income efficiency programs are presented with a solutions-oriented counter-narrative to media stories primarily concerned with opposition to carbon pricing and renewable energy.

Conclusion

This media analysis is relevant as Canada is likely to embark on a new debate about carbon pricing, with a new climate plan raising the price to $170 per tonne. To pull the conversation towards solutions, the federal government would be wise to prioritize funding a robust and well-designed low-income energy efficiency program. This would be one component of a strategy to reduce energy poverty, which could also include sustainable energy strategies for off-grid communities, reducing income inequality, increasing affordable housing, and helping consumers manage high debt levels.

 

Madeleine Chauvin is a co-author of the Efficiency Canada 2020 Provincial Energy Efficiency Scorecard. This research was for her Master’s in Resource and Environmental Management at Dalhousie University.

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