Community Matters: Energy Poverty
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By Sydney Sheloff
What is energy poverty?
Energy poverty is the experience of households struggling to meet their energy needs, including heating and cooling their homes, and powering lights and appliances (Empower Me, 2018; CUSP, n.d.). The average Canadian spends less than 3% of their after-tax income on home heating and electricity. According to Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners (CUSP) households that spend double this (6%) are considered to be living in energy poverty (n.d.).
50,765 Edmonton households – that’s 16% – live in energy poverty. This varies across the city, 36% of residents in the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood experience energy poverty, whereas only 8.3% in Ellerslie do (CUSP, n.d.). A variety of factors influence this. Households in Alberta Avenue have lower incomes than those in Ellerslie ($60K vs. $104K). In addition, houses in Alberta Avenue are older (86% were built before 1991) and more likely to need major repairs (17% vs. 0%).
People who own homes are more likely to live in energy poverty (20-30%) than those who rent (14%). This is likely because a) those who rent often have energy costs included in their rent, and b) renters tend to live in smaller apartments and row housing that requires less energy to heat. However, renters whose utilities are not included in their rent are most likely to experience energy poverty. People that live in single detached housing also have a much higher likelihood of experiencing energy poverty (Empower Me, 2018).
Energy poverty is not isolated to people living with low income. In fact, two-thirds of those living in energy poverty are not considered to be living in low income. People with higher incomes are more likely to be living in larger homes that cost more to heat (Empower Me, 2018). At the same time, lower-income families are more likely to be in homes that, while smaller, have poor insulation and are therefore hard to heat, as well often live in homes in major need of repairs (ODPHP, 2020). While low-income families may be less likely to experience energy poverty, they feel its effects much more harshly.
What are the effects of energy poverty?
Living in energy poverty has many negative consequences on the lives of families. Families may choose to keep their homes at lower temperatures, which is uncomfortable. Living in cold homes also has negative health consequences, such as higher rates of respiratory problems and high susceptibility to illness for children (EmPower Me, 2018). Families may have to sacrifice other important needs, such as groceries and medication, to pay for energy (CUSP, n.d.).
One of the most extreme consequences of energy poverty is having one’s power shut off. This has incredibly negative impacts on people’s health and quality of life. Losing refrigeration means food and medications can go bad and makes it so that families cannot cook food. A lack of hot water makes hygiene difficult (Cummings, 2022; CUSP, n.d.). As essential services, work, and school move online, not being able to power electronics or Wi-Fi routers makes these things inaccessible. Children can fall behind in school, and adults risk losing their jobs.
Living in energy poverty is incredibly stressful. Families need to make tough choices about what they power and when, and live under the fear that they could lose all power if they make a wrong choice. Above all, it greatly impacts a family’s sense of dignity.
What is happening in Edmonton?
The Government of Alberta has rules in place to ensure households do not lose heat in the cold winter months. Between October 15 and April 15, limiters are installed instead of a full disconnection (Cummings, 2022). These limiters allow families to have enough energy to power their necessities – such as their furnace, fridge, a few lights, and one
small appliance. Anecdotes show that families are forced to stop using their ovens, stoves, washers, and dryers as these appliances use too much power. If people go over the ‘limit’ their power will suddenly go off, and they have to either manually restart their meter, or if they have a meter with remote capabilities, wait 15-30 minutes for it to automatically restart (Edwardson, 2022).
Once summer hits, if these families have not caught up on bills, they risk losing power altogether. This has been the reality for 200 Edmontonians in 2022 (Cummings, 2022). As described above, losing power greatly affects these families’ ability to meet their basic needs – storing and cooking food, washing clothes, taking care of personal hygiene – and sacrifices their dignity.
EPCOR claims that disconnection is always a “last resort” after they have exhausted all other attempts at resolving balances (Cummings, 2022). From a human rights approach, is it ever okay to take away someone’s power? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 7 calls for universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy. Energy is essential for people’s physical and mental well-being, and as such, can be considered a fundamental human need (Shyu, 2021). Energy is currently unaffordable for many Edmontonians, this is a breach of their rights.
What can be done?
There are programs in place to address energy poverty, but these are not sufficient. The province of Alberta promised automatic $50 electricity rebates, but in the face of a rising cost of living, this barely makes a dent in families’ monthly budgets, let alone allows them to pay off debts (Cummings, 2022). Upgrades to make homes more energy efficient are a great way to reduce energy costs. However, if families cannot afford their monthly bills, it is unlikely they can afford home upgrades. Programs such as Empower Me offer home upgrades to help lower energy costs, but these are geared to people who own their homes and are out of reach for many renters and low-income families.
We need to instate policies to ensure all people living in Canada have access to their basic energy needs. In South Africa, vulnerable households have access to 50kWh per month as Free Basic Electrification (Shyu, 2021). Governments in Canada could instate a similar system to ensure all families can power their essential needs. Investing in renewable energy sources would make energy more affordable. Overall, governments in Canada, and Edmonton specifically, need to reconceptualize energy as a fundamental human need and put policies in place to ensure everyone has access.
Note: This is an excerpt from our September 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here
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Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners (n.d.). The many faces of energy poverty in Canada. https://energypoverty.ca/
CUSP. (n.d.). Energy poverty and equity explorers. https://energypoverty.ca/mappingtool/
Cummings, M. (2022, July 8). Epcor has shut off power for 200 Edmonton customers since winter disconnection ban ended. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/epcor-has-shut-off-power-200-edmonton-customers-1.6514114?utm_source=Taproot+Edmonton&utm_campaign=fd3dec5df4-TAPROOTYEG_PULSE_2022_07_12&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ef1adf0932-fd3dec5df4-421442804&mc_cid=fd3dec5df4&mc_eid=02b4567cf4
EmPower me (2018). Energy Poverty in Alberta: 2018. https://www.empowermeprogram.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Energy-Poverty-in-Alberta.pdf
Edwardson, Lucie (March 21, 2022). ‘I don’t wish it on my worst enemy’: Calgarians detail life with an electricity load limiter. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/utility-bills-electricity-limiters-calgary-1.6388949
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) (2020). Quality of Housing. https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-health/interventions-resources/quality-of-housing
Shyu, Chian-Woei. (2021). A framework for ‘right to energy’ to meet UN SDG7: Policy implications to meet basic human energy needs, eradicate energy poverty, enhance energy justice, and uphold energy democracy. Energy Research and Social Science 79. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2214629621002929