May 3, 2023

Guest post by Sarah-Anne Thompson

In partnership with Smart Prosperity Institute and Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE) Canada, the Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research Network (WISER) hosted three symposiums throughout 2022. The last two symposiums in the SSHRC-funded series brought together energy transition researchers to discuss the title themes: New Developments in Energy Modelling, Urban Transitions, and Energy Poverty, and Policy Change, Energy Democracy, and Inclusive Energy Policies. A reoccurring thread throughout the discussions was the importance of deep energy retrofits, and what policy concepts might facilitate them.


Why retrofits?

Conserving a kilowatt is easier than producing one. With 12% of greenhouse gasses (GHG) in Canada coming from the buildings we currently use, researchers and policymakers are looking to deep building retrofits such as ground source heat pumps or envelope improvements to meet our climate goals. Building retrofits are more timely and cost-effective than many GHG reduction efforts in other sectors, and can be associated with improved well-being and lower energy costs. However, with fossil fuel-intensive systems braided into present-day society, accelerating infrastructure electrification and efficiency is difficult. Symposium panellists emphasized that the ways in which policy is created and implemented must take into account concepts of fossil-fuel entanglement, energy poverty, retrofit economics, and robust modelling and data.


Fossil fuel entanglement

As Laura Tozer, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, pointed out in the Symposium, fossil fuels have co-evolved with society for so long that the two are politically, economically, and socially entangled. In Canada, this entanglement is evident in our buildings, where natural gas is often the primary source used for heating, cooking, and electricity. The household use of natural gas, also known as methane, is linked to negative human health impacts. As an atmospheric greenhouse gas, it is responsible for thirty percent of the current rise in global temperature.

The electrification of heating is a necessary part of the transition to net-zero. This is increasingly showing up in policy recommendations, such as the International Energy Agency recommending that a global ban on new fossil fuel boilers be implemented by 2025. Research finds that essential retrofit policies must encourage buildings, both new and old, to switch from natural gas to electric energy sources such as ground-source heat pumps.

Laura Taylor, Associate Professor at York University, applied a planning perspective to the issue of fossil fuel entanglement slowing down building electrification retrofits. She shared the saying, ‘if you take care of the pennies, the dollars will sort themselves out’ to reflect the importance of localized policy that incentivizes electric transitions. An example of this practice in policy would be​​ municipal governments exerting local Green Building Standards that encourage local ground source heat pump installation. As noted throughout the Symposium, any local policy must exist in tandem with financial incentives, increased capacity, and electrification literacy from federal and provincial governments, utilities, and industry.


Energy poverty

“Policy transitions for deep energy retrofits pose the opportunity to not just improve climate, but also to improve society” -  Dr. Runa Das, Associate Professor at Royal Roads University

Panellists from the discussion on Energy Poverty: Concepts and Practices considered the significance of deep energy retrofits in relationship to energy poverty. In this panel, energy poverty was described as “the inability to obtain socially and materially necessitated levels of domestic energy services. Dr. Runa Das shared the notion of the 10% indicator, which asserts that people who spend more than 10% of their income on energy are considered to have high energy burdens, which are associated with increased stress, economic hardship, and difficulty in moving out of poverty. Using this indicator, we see that 7-9% of Canadian households currently experience high energy burdens. Dr. Mylene Riva, Associate Professor at McGill University, emphasized that energy poverty and burden also take the shape of poor health outcomes from lack of household heating and cooling, or by the sacrificing of basic needs to pay for energy bills.

Energy burdens can have a systematic, cyclical impact on low-income communities specifically. Patricia Romero Lankao of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Yasmin Abraham of Empower Me/Kambo Energy Group brought forward that the challenge of retrofitting is even higher for disadvantaged communities, often renters, who don’t qualify for grants because of poor credit scores, or who generally lack the time or energy literacy to individually pursue deep energy retrofits. Policymakers can more effectively address root causes of energy poverty by measuring energy burden alongside housing age, type, condition and affordability, demographic, and household income.

Dr. Lina Brand Correa, Assistant Professor at York University, highlighted that the nature of energy poverty creates a spectrum of different needs, making energy poverty policy design an interesting challenge. Panellists insisted that retrofit policy which systematically mitigates the realities of energy poverty must take place on the federal level, with meaningful collaboration across sectors. Deep energy retrofits for affordable housing and upfront retrofit grants for improving building envelopes or installing heat pumps must be central. To facilitate this, Dr. Runa Das underlined the need for a national strategy on energy poverty, which many countries already have, that embodies principles of energy justice. For example, the European Union has a sweep of regulations and institutions dedicated to addressing energy poverty, including the “renovation wave” policy that focuses on low-income and social housing deep retrofits.


Retrofit economics

Many panellists maintained that more policies and funding mechanisms are needed to incentivize deep energy retrofits, not just small energy-saving measures. However, Dr. Kathryn Harrison, Professor at the University of British Columbia, noted the potential for retrofit subsidies to exacerbate inequalities. For example, housing retrofits tend to take place on the consumer side. If government grants and rebates do not cater to rental units or multi-unit buildings, Harrison noted, a great deal of funding may be going to those who own their house and can afford renovations anyways. For this reason, equitable retrofit policies may need to be equipped with means-testing tactics. Dr. Emily Eaton, Professor at the University of Regina, added that one way to alleviate these equity issues through a principled climate policy approach would include expanding the public sector and delivering goods, such as heat pumps, at a universally low cost.

Smart Prosperity Institute’s Colleen Kaiser pointed out that Canada experiences a major challenge around the discrepancies between where responsibilities lie and where the capacity is. Specifically, lower municipality and regional levels often lack capacity in their governments. If retrofit policy is to be implemented locally, it must be accompanied by increased capacity from federal and provincial governments. This echoes one sentiment shared by many panellists: that a federal strategy for equity-oriented policy and programs is needed to accelerate deep energy retrofits.


Energy modelling and data to inform policy

Throughout each Symposium, many panellists emphasized the need for robust qualitative and quantitative data to inform retrofit policy. Dr. Mylene Riva highlighted that there is very little data on what energy poverty reduction programs work well, or how they may be scaled up. Recent research cites the lack of physical data assets, such as smart meter installation procedures, as a hurdle to gathering localized energy data. Emily Gosh of the Stockholm Environment Institute, highlighted that with regard to building retrofits, there is a lack of data that attends to variance between population demographics. It is, therefore, difficult to implement targeted policy scenarios for different income groups that address energy overconsumption for some but also support the basic energy needs of others.

Dr. Magdalena Krol, Associate Professor at York University, shared examples of how modelling can inform retrofit decision-making. When assessing green roofs as energy-conserving retrofits, her comparative models revealed that green roofs created higher energy savings on old buildings than on new ones. Dr. Madeleine McPherson, Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, shared a new modelling initiative called the Energy Modelling Hub that seeks to remedy issues of timeliness, transparency and inclusivity in energy policy processes. Funded by Natural Resources Canada, the mandate of the Hub is to convene a national dialogue between modellers, stakeholders, and policymakers to chart an effective pathway to a decarbonized energy system.


Continuing the conversation

Decision-makers should consider how the linkages between retrofits, affordability, and decarbonization position end-users centrally in the energy transition. Current funding levels for deep energy retrofits are inadequate, confirming that it is not just a policy issue. It is a conversation that requires attention and funding across spectrums of research, education, culture, and industry. Accelerating deep energy retrofits in ways that address equity concerns is a pillar of a just transition and a take-home message of the symposium series.


Sarah-Anne Thompson is a graduate researcher in the department of Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph.


This post is the second in a series summarizing key takeaways from three symposia hosted last year by Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research network, Women in Renewable Energy and Smart Prosperity Institute.