Ottawa’s energy-efficiency retrofit program is struggling to keep up with high demand from Canadians seeking reimbursements for home upgrades, as thousands of grant applications sit untouched in the queue and homeowners face months-long – or even years-long – wait-lists for securing the federally certified energy evaluations required under the program.
The Canada Greener Homes Grant has been popular ever since its inception. Within three days of its launch in May, more than 32,000 applications were submitted. By July 1, that number had grown to nearly 70,000.
The government has now received more than 180,000 applications to the program, which helps cover the costs of investments in energy-conserving improvements such as electric heat pumps, new windows and doors, solar panels and better attic insulation. While program officers have managed to wade through tens of thousands of applications, they have yet to open roughly 2,500 of them.
As of Jan. 18, 1,227 homeowners had completed the entire retrofit, evaluation and application process. Only 223 people had actually received their grants, for a total of $978,000 paid.
Expected to cost $2.6-billion over seven years, the program is intended to provide as many as 700,000 Canadians with up to $5,000 each for retrofits and up to $600 each for the costs of the energy evaluations, which must be conducted by federally registered advisers before and after the renovations.
For William To, who applied for the grant on behalf of his parents in Ontario, the application process has been so painful that his family regrets participating. After completing the required pre-retrofit energy evaluation in June at a cost of $452, Mr. To’s parents spent $1,545 to upgrade their Hamilton home’s attic insulation and a further $256 for the post-retrofit energy evaluation.
Mr. To said he had to hound the energy-evaluation company over the course of two months for the post-retrofit evaluation report, which scores the home’s energy efficiency under the federal EnerGuide rating system. Even though he uploaded the necessary homeowner documentation to the online Greener Homes portal in September, he said, the application is still listed as “in progress.”
“They’re both working-class, blue-collar factory workers, so $1,500 is a lot to them – it’s a big deal for them,” Mr. To said of his mother and father. “Looking back, we wouldn’t have done it. It’s not worth waiting this long and being out of pocket that much.” (After The Globe and Mail reached out to the government about the family’s file, a program officer contacted Mr. To and said the delay was related to the fact that the energy adviser had not finished submitting information through the portal. The application has since advanced through the process.)
Messages posted to online forums show Mr. To’s family is not alone. One thread on Reddit, titled “The federal Greener Homes grant is a hot mess,” elicited dozens of comments from homeowners frustrated with the process, particularly as it relates to securing appointments with energy evaluators and the turnaround time for approving applications.
Joanna Sivasankaran, a spokesperson for federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, said in an e-mail to The Globe that the government is “exploring all options to ramp up this program, train more energy auditors and ensure that grants are delivered in a timely manner.” The government, for example, is now experimenting with remote evaluations, and it has set a goal of issuing cheques within 40 days of when applications are considered complete.
The program, which Ottawa has said will help cut Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 1.5 megatonnes by 2027, is part of the Liberal government’s plan to address climate change and grow the economy. The pre- and post-retrofit evaluations are considered integral to measuring the grant’s success.
Critics of these sorts of programs say they are politically motivated, subsidize home upgrades that would have been done anyway and end up lining the pockets of homeowners, who are already the wealthiest population in Canada. University of Ottawa professor of environment and public policy Nicholas Rivers said that while those are legitimate concerns, programs like the Greener Homes grant do tend to provide energy savings, albeit modest ones. “It’s an important part of the solution,” he said, “but it’s a small part.”
The Greener Homes program was rolled out during a period when residential renovations were already experiencing a pandemic-fuelled boom. Industry leaders say the program, while laudable, has exacerbated labour shortages and supply-chain issues, to a point where some business owners aren’t promoting the grant because they can’t keep up with existing demand.
“It’s really created a logjam – a crazy logjam,” said Jason Neal, executive director of the Siding and Window Dealers Association of Canada, which represents 500 members across the country, the majority of them installers. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good program … but the lack of auditors is the real linchpin in this.”
The phones have been ringing off the hook at All Season Inspection, a Toronto-based property inspection and energy auditing company that serves Ontario and B.C. “We’re crazy busy,” owner Vahid Azari said before cutting a five-minute phone interview short so he could return to work.
In the Northwest Territories, homeowners are in some cases being told it could be two years before they will be able to see energy advisers from the Arctic Energy Alliance (AEA) – a territorially funded non-profit organization and the sole provider of Greener Homes-compatible evaluations in the territory. Even before the program launched, service providers like these were dealing with backlogs caused by pauses in at-home visits because of COVID-19 safety protocols.
There are currently about 1,250 energy advisers registered with Natural Resources Canada to provide evaluations. The majority of them are located in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. In several provinces and territories, there are fewer than 15 federally registered advisers serving the entire jurisdiction. In Nunavut, there is only one. Cities tend to be better served than rural and northern areas, where homeowners rely on service organizations that may be located hundreds of kilometres away. The Greener Homes program has received applications from every province and territory.
Two weeks before the program launched, Ottawa announced it would invest $10-million in recruiting and training upward of 2,000 new energy advisers across the country to meet the expected increase in demand. Of the 18 projects so far approved under the funding envelope, four have gotten off the ground. Ms. Sivasankaran said, for example, that with $91,345 in federal funding the Canadian Institute for Energy Training has trained 272 advisers. The rest of the funding agreements are slated to be finalized in the next two months or so.
The shortage of advisers may take time to resolve. The average person needs roughly six to eight months to complete the required training and mentorship to become a registered adviser.
“There’s a recognition that there’s not enough [advisers] to meet the demand, and that’s resulting in wait times,” Greener Homes program director Ruth Talbot said. In an effort to help homeowners in rural and northern areas more quickly access the pre- and post-retrofit evaluations, she added, program officers are working with service organizations to co-ordinate requests from multiple people so an adviser can make one trip to a community and conduct several evaluations. The federal government is also now covering travel costs for advisers, to incentivize them to accept jobs outside metropolitan areas.
AEA executive director Mark Heyck said there are currently 200 homes on the organization’s wait-list for energy evaluations. It didn’t apply for funding under the $10-million federal program because its existing advisers don’t have the time to mentor trainees. “There’s a real squeeze and bottleneck that’s happening,” Mr. Heyck said. “There just aren’t the skills and capacity out there to meet the demand.”
Some people considering becoming federally registered energy advisers are wary of undertaking the process, since demand for evaluations tends to ebb and flow with the availability of public- and private-sector incentive programs. But that hesitation may soon be a thing of the past, Mr. Heyck said, because there’s a growing belief that the future of the energy-evaluation industry is bright. “Given the increased importance of climate change in the minds of the public, and in the minds of politicians, I think it’s unlikely we’ll see a wholesale withdrawal from the industry,” he said.
All of AEA’s residential energy advisers are based in Yellowknife, but requests are coming in from across the territory and from Nunavut, which is outside the organization’s service area. Mr. Heyck said AEA is exploring the prospect of connecting with southern service providers, who could send advisers to the Northwest Territories to work through some of the wait-list.
After all, he said: “There are only so many hours in the day.”
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