NB Power needs another $150 million just to clear the waitlist of lower-income households in the province seeking insulation and heat pumps as part of a free program.
The public utility’s CEO Lori Clark told a committee of politicians on Friday her organization is still committed to helping people save electricity and cut their costs.
So far, $60 million has been spent or budgeted for the program up to the end of the next fiscal year in April 2024.
But it will take more money from either the provincial or federal governments, and more contractors installing the services, to meet the demand, she warned.
“I will admit we had some bumps in the road in the early days,” Clark told the public accounts committee, describing what had happened since the Progressive Conservative government announced last October that any households earning less than $70,000 a year would qualify for the home energy savings program if they were still using inefficient baseboard heaters or oil as their primary heat source.
“Those wrinkles have been ironed out, and we have great uptake with the program.”
Faced with a shortage of contractors, NB Power temporarily suspended the program in January for a few weeks before it was back up and running again.
On average, Clark said, customers who have been through the program will save $460 a year, slashing their heating bill by nearly one-quarter.
Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson expressed surprise that last October, when the provincial government and NB Power announced the program, that it would cost only $10 million annually.
“The government undershot immensely the money needed to actually start checking off those boxes,” he said. “In my region, a lot of people were asking, ‘did they not know there were a lot of people here making $70,000 or less’?”
The CEO told him that was a question that she couldn’t answer and one that should be directed to the government.
When the Liberal critic asked if the waiting list was being caused by a lack of contractors or insufficient funds, Clark said, “a little bit of both.”
“We had a slow start last year and we actually put a hold on the program until we could sort out the issues with the contractor network,” she said. “We’ll be able to spend our budget this year, there’s no concern about that. And then we’ll need additional money to complete the waiting list.”
Under questioning by Green party Leader David Coon, the CEO outlined how the public utility devised the program: any household spending seven per cent or more of their income on their electricity was considered to be suffering energy poverty and needed help.
In New Brunswick, 118,000 households would fit in that category, but it depends on voluntary sign-ups.
All told, 6,000 households have been served by the program so far and 16,000 remain on the waitlist.
The average cost of converting a household from electric baseboard heat was $10,000, while oil customers cost $30,000 a home.
Clark said the utility also sees a need to encourage people with higher incomes to install more insulation and use heat pumps if it wants to avoid building more expensive generators in the future.
To that end, it is thinking of devising what it calls a concierge service to help more people access zero interest loans that are already available from Ottawa, to help make their homes more energy efficient. The CEO says as it stands, the program is difficult for the average person to navigate.
John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner