When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, Canada has made its climate ambitions clear. According to the federal government, we’re now on our way to net-zero emissions by 2050, and a 40-45% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. But the real question that remains is how, exactly, we’re going to get there. And when it comes to the emissions generated by our homes, businesses and other structures, we could go much faster if the private sector was invited to assist the federal government in a more holistic program delivery approach.
Depending on how you measure it, buildings account for between 13% and 17% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions. And as the Government of Canada’s Generation Energy report noted, getting those emissions down is one of four critical pathways to net-zero. “Fully one third of our Paris emissions commitment could be achieved by improving energy efficiency,” its authors said, “which will make our businesses more competitive internationally and leave more money in consumers’ pockets.”
Where cleantech is concerned, Canada has significant export potential, particularly in the energy efficiency sector. But we can’t make our businesses more competitive internationally if we don’t catalyze business success here at home first. Having digital cleantech companies more directly deliver programs that support government programs like the Greener Homes Grant can create exportable skills, products and services while bolstering Canada’s growing cleantech sector and accelerating the intended outcomes being sought by these programs. The program, which provides Canadian homeowners with up to $5,600 in grants for energy-saving improvements, requires in-person audits both before and after the work is done. While efforts are underway to hire and train certified auditors across the country, not just for existing home retrofits, but for new home pre and post audits, the number of qualified energy auditors is still a tiny fraction of the number of households who would benefit from energy efficient improvements. This means that an ambitious, valuable program is getting bogged down before it’s even had a chance to get going.
We’re not going to reach our greenhouse gas emissions targets if we apply 20th century tools to a 21st century problem. We’re already at risk of falling behind in the race to reach net-zero. Every month we waste is a month we don’t get back, and it becomes yet another month where our greenhouse gas emissions are higher than they need to be.
That’s where the private sector can help close the gap – if the government is willing to let it. Several Canadian companies have developed innovative, data-driven tools to make energy efficiency more scalable. By giving homeowners better access to solutions by the community of competing energy efficiency firms and leveraging their expertise, they can help homeowners better understand the opportunity that exists in their homes – and put them directly in touch with an energy adviser and trade contractor to get started. The key takeaway? Technology can allow homeowners to begin planning their retrofit roadmap in real time, building trust and helping guide and educate them on their retrofit journey. Also, technologies exist today to connect the homeowner, the energy adviser and the trade, all on one platform creating communication between the homeowner, energy adviser and trade during the pre and post audit – a critical stage where questions get asked about energy choices for the home.
Digital pre-assessments would help massively expand the universe of potential applicants for the federal program, and help those applicants better understand the programs and energy saving opportunities that are being offered. This is the approach that the Obama administration took nearly a decade ago, when it unveiled a digital strategy aimed specifically at marrying private-sector innovation with the public interest. By making these “high-value data sets” on energy usage and building performance available to their country’s entrepreneurs, they’ve managed to attract billions of dollars in new investment – and create thousands of jobs in a burgeoning sector of the green economy.
To do that, we need to get the consumer more involved in the push to reduce emissions. That won’t happen unless and until they truly see the value of green retrofits – and can find ways to more easily access them. The danger in delivering a first-come-first-serve program without a scalable approach to homeowner engagement is that they may unintentionally reward those who are already aware and engaged in energy efficiency. “We need to include everyone in this conversation and need to have everyone see themselves in that vision,” says Merran Smith, the executive director of Clean Energy Canada, and that is echoed by Linda Coady, the executive director of the Pembina Institute. “We are not going to move forward unless everyone is a part of this conversation.”
This will require leadership on the part of the federal government to tolerate more risk in this area than it has so far. We need to run pilot programs in different markets, with different service providers and in different communities to figure out how to get people excited about energy efficiency and the benefits it can deliver. Then, we need to support the businesses that are running those programs and help them scale up so they can meet bigger challenges, serve bigger markets and ultimately create bigger opportunities for emissions reductions and job creation.
That may not necessarily be our style as Canadians, at least when it comes to government programs that deliver services. But maybe that’s a sign that governments need to give the private sector and existing program administrators a chance to do what they do best. By setting standards, declaring ambitions and funding improvements on energy efficiency, the federal government is already making major contributions. But in order to reach the climate goals it has set and fully explore the pathways to net-zero that will get us there, it needs to do more than play it safe.