Energy efficiency rebates to homeowners in British Columbia expanded tenfold between 2020 and projected figures for 2023. While it’s a notable jump, the uptick must be far higher to meet climate goals, said Dylan Heerema, a senior policy adviser at Ecotrust Canada. Upping the numbers must include funding that doesn’t just target homeowners who can afford to make costly investments, he added, pointing to more equitable programs elsewhere in Canada.

Incentives provided through the province’s CleanBC’s Better Homes program jumped from $3.6 million in 2020 to about $33.5 million projected by Ecotrust Canada for 2023. Spending for the program hit $18.9 M in 2022. Those figures include money for air source heat pumps, upgrades to electricity services, insulation and more. That information isn’t publicly available and was provided to Canada’s National Observer by Ecotrust Canada, which received them through a freedom of information request.

Screenshot of FOI provided to Canada's National Observer by Ecotrust Canada

Heerema says the figures suggest that up to 6,500 heat pumps could be installed in the province in 2023 using money from CleanBC, compared to about 600 in 2019. The data only included figures for the first three months of 2023, so Heerema notes that is a maximum projection.

However, approximately 80,000 heat pumps need to be installed each year in existing residential buildings in B.C. for the province to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a 2021 analysis from the Pembina Institute, which found there is a $1.3 billion per year funding gap in the province to meet that goal.

Heat pumps, which run off electricity, use much less energy than traditional heating and cooling systems, therefore avoiding planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. A new paper out of Oxford University found that’s true even in the cold. Heat pumps are two to three times more efficient — or use two to three times less energy — than their oil and gas counterparts, specifically in temperatures ranging from 10 C to -20 C.

The uptick in heat pump adoption in B.C. doesn’t surprise Heerema, who stresses it’s a positive shift. But at the same time, B.C. lags when it comes to delivering incentives to people who need them the most. Unlike Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which all offer free heat pumps to low-income households, B.C. covers only a percentage of the cost of a heat pump. The lower a household’s income is, the higher the rebate, up to a maximum of $9,500, which Heerema says doesn’t cover the total cost of the unit and installation. There is no income cap for the Clean BC rebates.

Here's a first look at the money given out through the province’s CleanBC’s Better Homes program between 2019 and 2023, which was provided through a FOI provided by @ecotrustcanada

“We've seen a lot of growth in these programs and an uptake, which is really good. But these programs still remain quite inaccessible to, potentially, the folks [who] could benefit from them the most,” Hereema said.

“... So in my mind, that's the folks [who] are lower-income [who] have trouble using our Income Qualified Program because of its cost cap, or it’s renters who don't have the agency right now to make any change in their situation.”

There is also the CleanBC Better Homes New Construction Program, which supplies some funding for heat pumps and other energy efficiency improvements.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, the province's Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation highlighted the Income Qualified Program, which provides up to 95 per cent of the costs of converting to a heat pump with a cap of $9,500, along with BC Hydro and FortisBC’s Energy Conservation Assistance Program, which provides free energy-efficient light bulbs and other energy-efficiency measures. The department said free heat pump programs offered by other provinces "are often more limited," while pointing to New Brunswick’s program, which specifically funds mini-split heat pumps and installation upgrades, "which may not be sufficient to heat/cool an entire home."

According to B.C., the number of households with heat pumps is 12 per cent, up from seven per cent in 2020, and CleanBC rebates cover between a tenth and a quarter of heat pump sales for residences in the province. The rest are "types not covered by our Better Homes program (e.g. small commercial buildings, apartments) or do not meet program requirements such as efficiency ratings or coverage (i.e., they may be supplemental rather than primary heating), or are in electrically heated homes (covered by BC Hydro and FortisBC Electric). BC Hydro estimates there are a total of 200,000 heat pumps in the province, with 10 per cent being in private residences.

While heat pumps are better for the planet, they are also an important public health tool, notes Heerema, because they keep people cool during extreme heat, which is becoming more common in B.C. Air conditioning isn’t widespread in the province, which saw approximately 600 people die during the 2021 heat dome; around 61 per cent of those who died lived in low-income neighbourhoods.

Ultimately, getting the numbers on CleanBC’s program gives Heerema a snapshot of the state of rebate uptake in the province, and examples in Atlantic Canada offer models of what the West Coast could strive for.

“If we don't … focus on the most impacted folks and the folks [who] are potentially paying the highest energy bills — or potentially making those choices between other essentials and paying their energy bills — then we're really going to see an acceleration of the public health impacts.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
September 15, 2023, 07:05 am

This article has been updated to include comment from the province of British Columbia and to clarify the 2023 figures for the CleanBC rebates.

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I agree that gov't refit programs must facilitate the transition for all home owners, which means percentage reimbursement based on ability to self-finance. If "societal norms" are being forced, by either policy or physical realities, then the gov't needs to help the governed adapt.

But, looking ahead from right now, what about the needed building code and zoning changes meant to reduce the (per capita, perhaps?) amount of embedded energy in the construction of, and the operational energy consumption in, new construction?

Further, the assumption behind all that we read is that electricity supply will always be sufficient to meet demand; it's a given. I'd like to see some "demand-side" reportage; e.g. how much more electricity will be required to power a million (?) residential heat pumps? To conserve electricity, should we consider progressive taxation on electricity consumption, thereby "encouraging" thriftiness (and sufficiency) in consumption? Should the McMansion in Hamburger Heights, lit up like a Christmas tree with architectural accents, and an every-interior-light-on predilection, and consuming a consistent, say, 2 or more kWs, pay the same per kWh rate above, say, an average ongoing consumption of about 1 kW?

A quick scan of the expenditure table shows that 70% plus of the money was spent on installing heat pumps. This article doesn't give enough credit to the government for the Clean BC program, which has increased by an order of magnitude, the conversion rate from 'other sources " - read: natural gas - to electricity.
Surely that is something to celebrate, not something to carp about.
This seems to be typical of comment from environmentalists - a focus on what's not done, even in articles that describe how much has been done. Politicians need carrots as well as sticks.