N.S. is a leader in encouraging heat pumps, but programs can be confusing

Federal and provincial funding was recently announced to help more Nova Scotians replace their oil furnaces with heat pumps. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)
Federal and provincial funding was recently announced to help more Nova Scotians replace their oil furnaces with heat pumps. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)

When Claudia Gahlinger went to make the transition to a heat pump, she said she found the process more complicated than anticipated.

The 66-year-old lives with her husband in Cape Breton. They have a small farm at the top of the Cabot Trail.

For years, their primary source of heat was wood. As they got older, Gahlinger said she began looking for an alternative.

"Using firewood was just getting harder and harder and, I think, unhealthy," she said. "We needed a cleaner kind of heat."

An increasing number of Nova Scotians are likely to follow Gahlinger's lead as $120 million in federal funding dedicated to helping more people get heat pumps in the Atlantic provinces — as well as provincial funding meant to provide free heat pumps for low-income households — begins to flow

But consumers, officials and contractors say there's a need to simplify and stream access to heat pumps to ensure they are accessible to those who need them most.

Programs difficult to navigate

Nova Scotia leads the country for rates of heat pump adoption and for measures aimed at supporting low-income households.

But Gahlinger said she found available funding programs, including the rebate through Efficiency Nova Scotia, difficult to navigate when she went to purchase a heat pump earlier this year.

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

Ultimately, they chose a 'slim ducted' heat pump because it suited their house and limited budget, and it was offered through one of the few companies that service their area.

But Gahlinger said their choice "made us ineligible for the rebate."

Even if they had been eligible, the rebate was relatively small compared to the cost of the heat pump, Gahlinger said.

It would only have covered a few hundred dollars of the $5,000 cost, which was a substantial expense for their low-income household.

More outreach programs needed

Despite the hurdles some people face, Nova Scotia gets high marks for energy efficiency measures.

In November, the province was placed second in the country on Efficiency Canada's Energy Efficiency scorecard, in recognition of its programs aimed at low-income households and Mi'kmaw communities.

Nonetheless, Brendan Haley, director of policy and research at Efficiency Canada, said there are still ways that Nova Scotia could improve. They include removing barriers to addressing non-energy home issues that have to be fixed before efficiency upgrades can be made, such as asbestos remediation or mould removal.

"We really need a whole-home solution to get to where we need to go in terms of net zero emissions," he said.

The other potential improvement, Haley said, is simplifying and streamlining the process of accessing support.

Municipal programs helping people access funding

In Bridgewater, a program aimed at this kind of streamlining launched at the beginning of December.

The Energize Bridgewater initiative came out of research done with McGill University. It showed that two of every five people in Bridgewater were struggling to afford their energy bills.

The program seeks to help people navigate efficiency programs.

"If people are struggling with energy costs and maybe other life circumstances that are making things challenging for them, they might not have the time and mental space to address dealing with all these applications on their own," said Meghan Doucette, the Energize Bridgewater planner. "So that's a big part of the service that we're offering."

Residents can contact Doucette, who will either refer them to the town's new home upgrade program, which is targeted to low-income households, or to the town's existing low-interest efficiency upgrade financing.

Trade association says process needs to change

Martin Luymes of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute — a trade association for the HVAC industry — says programs are also needed to streamline the supply side.

In an announcement on the Homewarming program, which will offer free heat pumps for up to 13,500 low-income households, Natural Resources and Renewables Minister Tory Rushton said the program will create more green jobs.

But Luymes says the industry is already facing labour shortages. On top of that, the increased demand for heat pumps is going to require even more skilled workers, he said.

"These are some of the fallout effects, where we're trying to make a big transition to electrification in a relatively short period of time without having taken care of all the adjustments that need to be made," Luymes said.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

The institute's proposed solution is to introduce a trade specifically for residential HVAC systems, including heat pumps.

The trade currently requires a refrigeration licence, which entails a five-year apprenticeship. Luymes said he'd like to see a trade in Nova Scotia that would require half that time, which would be similar to programs that exist in Ontario and Manitoba.

"It requires consultation and there's a whole process that the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency has to go through to adopt that regulation," he said. "It's already been probably two or three years of conversation that we've had with the agency and we're still not at the finish line."

Luymes said this has implications for the cost and availability of heat pumps. In the absence of enough qualified technicians, installers may raise their prices due to excess demand, or consumers may face long delays.

Some households forgoing incentives

Cory MacNutt, with Atmosphere Climate Control Specialists Ltd., a heat pump contractor in Halifax and Wolfville, said there are also delays in having electrical panel upgrades and energy assessments done. He said the latter is a necessary step for those looking to get government funding for heat pumps.

MacNutt said they're now getting calls from people overwhelmed by the cost of filling their oil tank — and weighing whether it's worth it to seek grants, or forgo funding in the hopes of speeding up the process.

"We got these elderly customers, they're spending $2,000 a month on oil. If they have to wait from December to April to get a heat pump installed, that's $8,000. So a lot of them are actually ditching the incentives in order to get the heating system installed."

He says licensed contractors used to be able to install a system, and have the energy assessment done afterwards — a system he thinks would be better suited to the current situation.

"If we already know prior to going into having the assessment that the home will benefit from having a heat pump, why do we delay months and months and months in order to have these energy evaluations?" he says. "There has to be a way to fast-track some of these things."

As for Gahlinger — who said her heat pump has been worth it so far despite the hurdles — she said the programs should be made as easy as possible given the urgency of the need for clean energy.

"There should just be more direct money for greener energy."