Community - the Key to Energy Efficiency Buy-In

Good news, home renovators!

With the recent success of the Conservative Party at the polls, Canada’s Eco-Energy Retrofit Program gains a new lease on life. Once again, householders will be able to qualify for up to $5,000 in federal rebates for upgrading their home’s heating system, water heater, or insulation. If you’re someone who can sort through all the options on the program’s national website, choose a reputable contractor, and cover all the costs up front, it’s a good deal. Why, over the last three years, 85,000 households have participated … rather less than 1% of the Canadian total.

Is this really the best we can do?

By way of comparison, consider Kirklees (see photo). This borough in West Yorkshire, England just wound up a 3-year energy efficiency program too. The result: of the borough’s 171,000 households, 51,000 (30%) improved their insulation. The £200 (C$317) they each save on fuel frees up over $16 million a year in discretionary income. The borough’s carbon emissions have fallen by almost 1.5 billion tonnes. Over 160 jobs were created locally for insulation installers, energy auditors, and the like. For every pound of public money invested, this program has returned five pounds in benefits.

Kirklees had three things going for it that programs like Eco-Energy Retrofit do not.

  • First, Kirklees’ strategy was conceived and driven by local organizations. The co-ordinating body was Kirklees Energy Services, a nonprofit subsidiary of the borough council. It worked hand in glove with other local authorities, private contractors and energy utilities, equipment suppliers, and community volunteers to get entire neighbourhoods to buy into draft-proofing, and insulation and furnace upgrades.
  • Second, it strove to engage a wide range of income groups. Special attention was paid to service packages that were attractive to low-income households. They, after all, are the ones most troubled by heating costs and, coincidentally, most prone to emit carbon. Certified contractors and a roster of rebates made it way easier for people to buy in.
  • Third, it was long-term, thanks in large part to a consistently supportive policy environment. The borough council got started on energy efficiency back in 2000, when a European Union program was ready to cover half the budget of initiatives that built local capacity to reduce carbon emissions. When the United Kingdom launched its own program, Warm Zones, Kirklees Energy Services already had seven years of learning and community trust under its belt. Warm Zones has now wound up, but Kirklees (now Yorkshire) Energy Services just keeps going.

In short, Kirklees is a lot more than an “energy efficiency program.” It has a local movement to make housing more affordable, create jobs, improve health standards, and reduce carbon emissions in one area all at one go. It joins up issues, capacity, resources, and people at the level of the community. That’s what Kirklees gets right, and what Canada gets wrong about energy efficiency.

Photo “Huddersfield Town Centre from Castle Hill” courtesy of

Dig Deeper

  • Kirklees, UK: An area-based approach to energy efficiency, housing affordability, and jobs Here’s a way to integrate environmental with social and employment benefits, and roll the package out to over 500,000 people. This article is the first in an i4 special edition on affordable housing, sponsored by the BC-Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance. It is also an excerpt from The Resilience Imperative: Co-operative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, a book by Mike Lewis and Pat Conaty about how we power down the economy to a local, sustainable level (New Society, Spring 2012).
  • BUILD uses energy efficiency as a vehicle for employment training as well as housing comfort in Winnipeg’s low-income neighbourhoods. As its director explains, the integration of benefits helps BUILD appeal to partners of very different political persuasion.
  • It is common now for energy efficiency programs to target one or another segment of the public. The United Kingdom’s proposed Green Deal would allow households to use the savings on their fuel bills to pay down the costs of energy efficiency measures. The Green Landlords Project of the British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association will use the same strategy to prompt landlords to take action on their rental units. A closer fit for Kirklees is CEWO, a partnership between nonprofits and industry in Oregon. It aims to retrofit 6,000 older homes and create or retain 6,000 jobs in five counties. Note that all these programs are by application – none aspire to engage every resident of a geographic area.
  • Haringey, a borough in the city of London, is planning to reduce its carbon emissions by 40% by 2020. Haringey’s vehicle of choice is to be a multisectoral alliance, co-ordinated by a nonprofit organization and employing strategies that engage all income groups. Read Haringey’s First Annual Carbon Report. Haringey receives its technical back-up from the New Economics Foundation. Its briefing paper Decarbonising the Local Economy explains how carbon descent can be made to reduce, rather than increase social inequality.

i4 is an ejournal about Inspiring, Innovating, Inciting, and Inventing ways of life and work that permit humanity and the planet to thrive in this century of unprecedented challenges. i4 is a publication of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal.