War on baseboard heating has eased since NB Power took over Efficiency NB

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Three years after absorbing the independent conservation agency Efficiency NB, NB Power insists it has been preserving the goals of the former organization

But critics have been challenging that claim at the ongoing rate hearing for the utility in Saint John.

"I don't think energy efficiency is a top priority for NB Power," said Daniel Leblanc, a smart meter opponent, during questioning about the utility's conservation programs on Monday.

"NB Power has many different priorities. Efficiency NB had one."

NB Power does offer several efficiency grants and incentives similar to those provided by the old Efficiency NB and is seeking approval to add more in April.

But one stark difference that has emerged over the past week is that NB Power's view of electric baseboard heating is significantly less hostile than Efficiency NB's used to be. And the former organization's aggressive effort to encourage consumers to switch away from electric heat has not survived the transition.

"That (Efficiency NB) mandate is a little bit different than ours," said Darren Murphy, NB Power's senior vice-president and chief financial officer, on Friday during questioning by Enbridge Gas lawyer Jeffery Callaghan about why the utility is not pursuing the same "off baseboard" policy long championed by Efficiency NB.

"Electric heat contributes really valuable revenue most of the months of the year. The notion of eliminating the electric heat altogether has the implications of reducing revenue all year long."

War on baseboard

That has been causing some frustration at the hearing among those who believe the utility has been subtly tailoring old Efficiency NB conservation programs to serve its own well being, not necessarily the public's.

Utility executives have made it clear they favour programs to push electric heat use to off-peak hours instead of having customers abandon electric heat altogether. Consequently, there are no longer grants for those who switch to other fuels.

Widespread electric baseboard heating among New Brunswick residential customers is the largest contributor to the huge swings in demand for electricity that causes NB Power a number of problems.  

It's required to maintain a fleet of generators capable of servicing wintertime peak heating demand, even though some plants are expensive to operate and only needed a few weeks every year.   

And since inefficient fossil-fuelled generators are typically used to meet the peak winter demand, baseboard heating also drives up the utility's greenhouse gas emissions.

Efficiency NB offered generous grants — up to $10,000 — for electric baseboard customers to install non-electric central heating systems. It was a move endorsed by the former Liberal government of Shawn Graham and its then energy minister Jack Keir.

"Electricity generation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Brunswick, and electric baseboard heating systems are the least efficient and least environmentally friendly heating option," said Keir back in 2008.

In 2011, an energy commission appointed by the former Progressive Conservative government of David Alward went further, calling for a ban on electric baseboard heating in new construction.

But since the Gallant government turned Efficiency NB over to NB Power to operate in 2015, the hostility to electric baseboard heating has softened considerably.

"We have got very cost effective generation," said Murphy.

"It's very, very specific times in the winter time when that isn't the case. The objectives of Efficiency New Brunswick clearly wasn't a mandate that said, 'You know, how do I balance those things.'"