Editorial: Rebate Rollbacks

The Ampersand is a pedestrian-focused, environmentally sustainable community south of Ottawa, and is part of CMHC's EQuilibrium housing program. Courtesy Minto Communities
The Ampersand is a pedestrian-focused, environmentally sustainable community south of Ottawa, and is part of CMHC’s EQuilibrium housing program. Courtesy Minto Communities

Home Depot’s aisles may appear to be a little quiet of late. Canadian homeowners wishing to upgrade their drafty windows are no longer eligible to apply for tax credits and rebates from the federal government’s ecoENERGY Retrofit program–unless they had previously applied to the program and had an initial energy audit performed on their residence. On a Sunday morning in January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver made a surprise announcement cancelling the popular initiative two months before its scheduled end date, claiming the government had already reached its target participation of 250,000 registered homeowners. According to a number of industry estimates, the government had spent less than half of its $400-million budget on the plan. The announcement came with a series of vague statements about the government’s commitment to spend $117 million over three years on other initiatives to improve housing standards, building codes, industrial practices, vehicle labels and consumer appliances. Although widely interpreted as an excuse to reallocate funds elsewhere, our concern over the government’s cancellation of the ecoENERGY Retrofit program should perhaps be redirected towards current public policy, which lacks the effectiveness to promote greater consumer demand for sustainable homes and residential communities.

It has been estimated that those who made upgrades through the ecoENERGY Retrofit program saved roughly 23 percent of an average home’s annual electricity bill. With most grants amounting to $1,500, we can almost be certain that this program offered modest solutions to the broader challenges of improving the energy-efficiency of single-family dwellings and neighbourhoods in this country.

Consumers understand what choices must be made when it comes to refrigerators and vehicles, but remain baffled when asked to compare energy costs associated with new or existing houses, even though such energy-ratings standards already exist. Known as ENERGY STAR, this program for new homes measures energy-efficient features required to meet–and even surpass–a list of technical specifications. In Ontario alone, the ENERGY STAR program certified 8,500 homes in 2010, but the larger question is whether or not this program is stringent enough, considering that a home qualifies when it performs only 25 percent better than the building code’s minimum standard.

An even more promising program designed to improve the quality of housing in Canada is EQuilibrium, an ongoing national sustainable housing demonstration initiative led by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) that is intended to bring the private and public sectors together to develop homes that combine resource- and energy-efficient technologies with renewable energy technologies. Various demonstration projects have already been established across the country, but greater effort could be made to market both the technology and the public-private partnerships.

If government cannot afford to provide grants to single-family homeowners, then it must think of other ways to circumvent the unwillingness among developers to improve the sustainability quotient of single-family homes. BILD, an organization formed through the merger of the Greater Toronto Home Builders’ Association and the Urban Development Institute of Ontario, believes that developers should only voluntarily adopt energy-efficient products that are “based on their own business assessment relative to their buyers’ preferences and market feasibility.”

One option of working around homebuilders’ reluctance to change is to implement better urban design and planning guidelines. For example, in December 2011, the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) finalized the Canadian Compliance Paths of the LEED for Neighbourhood Development 2009 rating system (LEED-ND) to provide greater clarity and guidance for sustainable community planning and development. LEED 2009 ND awards points for features such as walkability of the neighbourhood, accessibility to fresh food, and designing for an aging population. There are currently eight Canadian LEED 2009 ND projects underway. Most sensibly, LEED-ND developments include the following categories to measure successful communities: Smart Location and Linkages, Neighbourhood Pattern and Design, Green Infrastructure and Buildings, and Innovation and Design Process.

Government may be correct to cancel the ecoENERGY Retrofit program. However, instead of worrying about homeowner tax credits, the key to the successful marketing of energy-efficient single-family homes may in fact reside in planning for compact neighbourhoods rather than fussing over new weatherstripping for old windows.