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Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Dec. 8, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Dec. 8, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Tories close energy-saving program early Add to ...

A program brought in by the Conservatives to create jobs in the green-energy sector while making homes better prepared for harsh Canadian winters has been ended early in the name of deficit reduction.

The people who work in the sector estimate the government has paid out less than half of the $400-million it dedicated in the last federal budget to the eco-energy retrofit program, which helps offset the costs of replacing aging doors, windows, insulation and other energy draws.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced on Sunday morning that the government had stopped accepting applications for the funding two months earlier than planned.

The news came at the bottom of a release, framed as a good news announcement, that said the government would spend $117-million over three years for other efficiency initiatives, including improvements to housing standards, building codes, industrial practices, vehicle labels and consumer appliances.

But Jeff Murdock, the vice-president of a Vancouver-based energy audit company, says that is entirely different from helping Canadians improve their homes and cut fuel bills. Mr. Murdock’s industry estimates that, by capping the registration at this point, the federal government will invest $192-million at most in eco-energy retrofit grants.

“They haven’t really fulfilled their investment commitment, and to have closed the program early when there is so much money still on the table, that’s surprising and it’s shocking, really,” said Mr. Murdock, who is also a member of the Save ecoENERGY Coalition, a national group of industry associations, environmental organizations and small businesses that wants to grow the market for home energy retrofits.

Homeowners who make upgrades through the program save an average of 23 per cent on their energy use, Mr. Murdock said. That amounts to about 3.14 tonnes of greenhouse gases per household, he said.

Other government initiatives to reduce energy use, such as a ratings system that will allow consumers to know the energy efficiency of homes before they buy, will take time, he said. “We want to maintain the industry’s capacity to do these energy evaluations that are so important,” Mr. Murdock said.

When asked on Monday whether the retrofit program had, in fact, been cancelled before half of the promised money was spent, Katie McDougald, a spokeswoman for Mr. Oliver, said applications were cut off for budgetary reasons.

“This decision demonstrates prudent management by our government to ensure that we can return to balanced budgets during this time of fiscal constraint,” Ms. McDougald wrote.

“In the final year of the 2007-2011 phase of the program, over 84 per cent of homeowners who registered applied for a grant, with the average grant being over $1,500,” she said. “If some registered homeowners choose not to apply for a grant, there is the possibility that some program funds will not be used. However, it is more important that the program ensures there will be sufficient funds for all registered homeowners.”

The minister’s explanation for refusing new requests was that the retrofit program had reached its goal of helping 250,000 registered homeowners.

No such qualification was included in the budget promise to provide $400-million to help retrofit homes – something that was added to the government’s financial plan before the election in an effort to dissuade the New Democrats from voting against the Conservative minority.

Only when the details of how the money would be awarded were rolled out in July, after the Conservatives had won a majority, did the government state that it would be limited to 250,000 people.

Some people who looked into the program say they discovered it would not be a huge benefit. Hiring a specially licensed contractor to conduct an energy audit, which is required to obtain a grant, can cost hundreds of dollars, eating up much of the eventual return.

But it was still extremely popular at a time of rising heating costs, and when the benefits of proper insulation are becoming increasingly evident.

Megan Leslie, the NDP environment critic, said the retrofit program both works well and pays for itself in spinoffs and tax revenues.

“This program creates jobs in every community across Canada,” Ms. Leslie said.

It reduces energy consumption and it saves families money, she said. “But now they are cancelling it. It’s pretty mind-boggling that they would do this.”

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