Energy efficiency program that saved businesses money short-circuited, Telegraph Journal – 29 March 2016

article by John Chilibeck, Telegraph Journal

“This could drive a lot of job creation because of the products needed, projects required and services and trades that have to be involved,” Coon said.

Rob Northrup wanted to save money when he built a new Leon’s outlet in Saint John, but his wife Jean, who served for years on the town of Hampton’s environment committee, pushed him to go green.

The two ideas were married when they discovered an energy efficiency program that helped them make the new showroom airtight, an incentive program that has since been cancelled by the provincial government.

“The program was great because it gave us goals to shoot for, we were very conscious of what they were looking for, and we drove hard and looked at every corner in the design, from heating, lighting and building construction, to satisfy what they were looking for,” Rob Northrup said in an interview. “So they gave us a golden incentive to make it happen.”

It’s cases like the Northrups’ that have some people wondering why the Tory provincial government cut back Efficiency New Brunswick’s programs until the agency was entirely abandoned by Brian Gallant’s incoming Liberal government, its mission taken over partially by NB Power, the Crown electrical utility.

Back in 2012, Northrup used the Start Smart New Commercial Buildings Incentive Program to win about $50,000 in grant money toward the new building with double the square footage and three times as much air space as his old Leon’s outlet on the city’s east side.

It wasn’t a rush decision: Northrup had to put in about the same amount of money because the agency stipulated he had to make the new green building more than one-third more efficient than a conventional Leon’s. Better insulation was used on the roof, walls and foundation, all the lighting in the building was fitted with LEDs, and large rooftop heat pumps were installed. All those items cost more, but the savings turned out to be huge, better than expected. Within a year, the owner had recovered all his costs through lower heating and lighting bills.
That was a huge plus for his business, as energy costs were one of his biggest monthly expenses.

“We have cut what we would have spent on energy by 50 per cent. That’s huge. That’s not just for today or a month, that’s for years from now. For anybody in business, if they can cut any area of their operating costs by 50 per cent and not affect their product or services, I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many businesses out there that wouldn’t do that.”

Efficiency New Brunswick was a Crown corporation that once offered financial incentives to people to make their businesses and homes less wasteful of energy.

In the last year that it offered a full suite of programs, in 2012-13, as many as 18 Start Smart buildings were completed and occupied, receiving $747,068 in total incentives to help them defray the extra costs. An additional 15 buildings were in various phases of the program at the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2013.

The program for new buildings was cut by the Tory government of the day, and now that NB Power has taken over the surviving Efficiency programs, it hasn’t been resurrected.

On the plus side, existing businesses can still get retrofits. Back in 2012-13, Efficiency NB provided $1.2 million for energy efficiency measures in 68 buildings, similar to what NB Power offers today. A plan put forth last year to the province’s regulator, the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board, shows the Crown utility plans on helping businesses retrofit up to 60 buildings a year between 2016 and 2018, spending $800,000 annually (the first year’s costs will be picked up by the provincial government, as it agreed to transition the move from a taxpayer-funded to a ratepayer-funded program).

The board will look at the plan at a hearing in May, which is expected to last a week. A decision will likely be made by mid-summer. But that plan still doesn’t offer much for businesses putting up new buildings.

NB Power spokesman Brent Staeben said it was important to remember the utility had an overarching plan to save all its customers energy – both commercial and residential – with a goal of shifting and reducing demand so that it can reduce peak loads during the winter months and avoid building or refurbishing a major power plant, a consumption pattern that would help save the utility, and by extension people who pay power bills, $1 billion in extra costs.

Besides the retrofits for commercial businesses, NB Power has directed much of their efforts at residential customers, including a ductless heat pump rebate of $500 that was four times more successful than initial estimates.

Since the launch of the rebate programs in the fall of 2013, NB Power customers have saved $4 million on purchases of thousands of energy-efficient products, helping them to reduce their annual costs by more than $4 million.

“We think people will recognize that it’s a real sea change for NB Power to say we don’t want to build another power plant, we want to invest in energy efficiency. It’s watts we won’t need that we want to be investing in, rather than putting steel in the ground and building another generating station.”

Still, critics suggest NB Power is still far off-the-mark when it comes to helping businesses.

Green Party leader David Coon, who was deeply critical of the move to disband Efficiency New Brunswick and give NB Power the responsibility of saving people energy, says the two organizations have different mandates.

Efficiency New Brunswick, he said, was primarily concerned with reducing heating costs and creating ‘green’ jobs for contractors and suppliers. NB Power, on the other hand, is more motivated by reducing electrical consumption and costs.

“Efficiency New Brunswick was gradually undermined by the former Alward government, which gave it less and less money to operate,” Coon said in an interview. “The Liberal government came in, dismantled it and transferred the staff to NB Power. The utility has adopted some programs, but it doesn’t compare with what’s offered at Efficiency Nova Scotia just next door.”

Coon is sponsoring a private member’s bill to create a new efficiency agency called Renew New Brunswick to do much of what Efficiency New Brunswick did plus more, what he calls, “Efficiency New Brunswick on steroids.” Second reading of the bill is April 7, but it isn’t expected to go far because the Liberal majority doesn’t support it.

“This could drive a lot of job creation because of the products needed, projects required and services and trades that have to be involved,” Coon said.

The province commissioned a study to look at the economic impact of fully developing the energy efficiency sector in 2012 and it found up to 1,400 jobs a year could be created if businesses were fully included in those programs.

“What we have is a shadow of what once was in Efficiency New Brunswick’s heyday and certainly a shadow of what could have been if momentum had continued,” Coon said.

Staeben said although NB Power won’t offer everything Efficiency New Brunswick did at its peak to the commercial sector, it was still investing significantly into the retrofit program that would benefit scores of businesses.

“Government of the day made the decision to eliminate those programs, and now we’re ramping them up again not only because we recognize there’s a significant benefit to the utility but the customer,” he said.

Northrup, whose Leon’s outlet on Rothesay Avenue benefited from the old program, said it would make sense for the provincial government to get involved in the energy efficiency field again.

“Put half the money in and ask businesses to pay half for making their new buildings more efficient, with a cap. It would save people a lot of energy and help the environment.”