161. Social housing retrofits save real money

Even with a small budget, B.C. has saved millions through shallow retrofits

Category: Buildings, Renewable Energy

Published: December 15, 2016

By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson

Ian Cullis has a hard job. He works on the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association and as part of his role he helps social housing operators conduct energy audits of their facilities and find ways to save energy on their operations.

“In BC, there are 800 non-profit societies, 2,500 buildings and over 100,000 units of social housing,” says Cullis.

Ian Cullis and the B.C. Non-profit Housing Association have done more than 300 small energy efficiency retrofits in social housing in B.C. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

The job is hard because compared to market housing, social housing units use 52 per cent more energy per unit area. Worse yet, in buildings where the tenants don’t pay for the utilities they use 133 per cent more energy per unit area. So there have been calls for energy to move to a pay to play model.

Social activists might call it regressive, but unlike rent, utility costs can be reduced through behavior. If the incentive is there, an opportunity to reduce your monthly costs exists.

Like it or not, how people behave dramatically affects energy use. To address the behavioral component Cullis and the non-profit housing organization have been working with “Ready to Rent” to educate tenants about energy conservation.

Oh yeah, and the associations that Cullis helps also have an infrastructure maintenance deficit of $400 million dollars.

Energy efficiency is key

Cullis says energy efficiency is very important for social housing because more efficient buildings are more comfortable. They also save us money and move us towards our long-term climate goals. Not to mention that people who live in social housing don’t tend to have the disposable income to perform their own retrofits.

In many jurisdictions there is very little money available for energy retrofits of social housing. But about six years ago the B.C. Government set up the Energy Efficiency Retrofit Program for Social Housing. It has a modest annual budget of $700,000, but it’s helped Cullis get some social housing agencies involved with energy and cost-saving initiatives.

“Over the past six years, we have saved 10 gigawatt hours in electricity and 26,000 gigajoules worth of natural gas,” says Cullis. That’s “over a million dollars a year in savings.”

The Leman building

The B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association helped Vancouver Native Housing line up the funding to retrofit their lights and boilers. Patrick Snow Wolf, the building manager says they are saving $6,000 per year after doing the energy retrofits. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

As an example, Cullis toured us through the Leman Building operated by the Vancouver Native Housing society on 27 West Pender Street in Vancouver.

Patrick Snow Wolf, the building and assets manager for the Leman building, says they did a lighting and boiler retrofit and replaced some piping.  From this, they are saving $2,000 per year on lighting costs and another $4,000 per year with their more efficient boilers.

Many social housing agencies don’t have the capacity to explore things like energy efficiency and this is where Ian Cullis and the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association comes in.

“The size of the benefit is pretty huge,” says Cullis. “In a building like this one, the lighting retrofit was $17,000. BC Hydro paid a $2,000 incentive, and B.C. Housing paid $8,000. So the society ended up paying $7,000 for a $17,000 lighting retrofit.”

Part of the challenge of doing energy efficiency projects in social housing is the complex web of players. They can create split incentives or no incentive at all. So in the past when the housing organizations did retrofits all the benefits flowed to B.C. Housing.

“It’s a disincentive to energy efficiency,” says Cullis. “And I think five years ago, most of these buildings weren’t doing energy efficiency projects. So with the partnership between us, B.C. Housing and the utility companies, we’ve been able to create a program that feeds the savings back to the society in terms of a rebate when they complete their projects.”

But that still leaves the hardest nut to crack—human behaviour. We don’t want to pick on people who live in social housing because whether it’s social housing or market housing people who don’t pay their own utility bills use a lot more energy. But those in social housing use about 133 per cent more if they don’t pay the bill themselves.

But that is why programs like this and say, a carbon levy, are a good thing. they make people aware of their energy use and awareness is the first step on the road to change.

Making social housing more energy efficient