Real leadership needed to help reduce energy bills

With natural gas prices skyrocketing this winter, people aren’t just shuddering from the cold – they’re quaking at the thought of coming energy bills. Indeed, Albertans are already demanding that Premier Klein open the coffers again and hand out rebates to help consumers through the tough times.

But that’s not really an answer, is it? The money goes to the utilities and gas companies, but nothing changes. It’s merely a band-aid solution that further entrenches our dependence on fossil fuels. The real answer is for governments – both federal and provincial – to show some real leadership and take steps that will protect citizens in the long term.
Such steps are long past due. Imagine, for example, how much better off Canadian consumers would be today if the federal government had previously worked with provinces to set new, energy-efficient building code guidelines for homes. Improved standards, called R2000, have existed for years and can save homeowners 30-40 per cent on energy bills. Similar standards, called C2000, are also available for commercial buildings.
However, despite of the advantages of these standards, and the benefits they would provide to Canadians, no province has yet adopted them as the minimum building code for new construction. R2000 homes cost only slightly more to build and pay for themselves in a few years through efficiency (and comfort!). But most homes are built by developers, not homeowners, and developers have little incentive to make homes more energy efficient. That’s why better building codes are so important.
New building codes won’t help Canadians with existing homes, but a national building retrofit program would. Most people know that better insulation, caulking and weather stripping can greatly reduce energy bills, but many don’t know where to start or can’t afford the up-front costs. A program to help homeowners find and eliminate energy leaks would save Canadians money, create jobs across the country and again reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Toronto already has a successful program called Green$aver that has helped thousands of citizens and saved them money. It’s the kind of program that should be instituted nationally.
Analysts say that increased demand for natural gas, largely because of the cold winter, is pushing prices up. But there’s another culprit too – tar sands. Extracting crude oil from the sands takes plenty of energy, mostly in the form of natural gas. As tar sands projects expand, demand for natural gas will continue to increase dramatically, driving prices up at home while most of the extracted crude is exported to feed the voracious American appetite for oil. Think about that when you pay your gas bill.
Of course, some of that oil is used to make gasoline for Canadian vehicles, especially SUVs, which are permitted to burn more fuel and pollute more. Because of these loopholes, the average new vehicle today burns more gasoline than the average new vehicle did back in 1980! It doesn’t have to be this way. If the federal government has the courage to set higher fuel-efficiency standards, it will cost us less to fill up at the pump and our air will be cleaner.
The federal government recently committed nearly $2 billion to help meet the Kyoto Protocol and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. But these funds are largely unallocated. There is no commitment to improve public transit, create new building code guidelines or start a national retrofit program. Each of these programs would help us meet our Kyoto targets and they would save Canadians money.
It would be a terrible shame if the Kyoto money was spent on spurious technologies, studies, committees and more pilot projects designed to appease big industry groups. Real solutions already exist. At a time when Canadians are crying for relief from energy prices, let’s give them something to look forward to – genuine, long-term solutions that will help take the sting out of our energy bills for good.

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