A decision that needs a rethink

Published Tuesday, November 11, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

In 2000, a new NB government led by a fresh young premier made one of its first big moves: it eliminated more than two-thirds of the positions in a newly-amalgamated department for agriculture and fisheries.  In 2014, a new NB government led by another fresh young premier has made one of its first moves: it has decided to eliminate Efficiency New Brunswick, the agency charged with helping NBers reduce their energy usage and bills.

One decision was hastily reconsidered and reversed; the other should be too.

An impressive track record

To a neutral observer, the decision to eliminate Efficiency NB is baffling.  The agency was established in 2006 by the Lord government, and subsequently supported by the Graham and Alward governments.  It was the first organization of its kind in Canada, and its programs have since been widely emulated. 

Its mandate is to help New Brunswickers save energy and money, and by most measures it has been very successful. Consider:

  • More than 30,000 New Brunswick homeowners have used its programs.  
  • Those homeowners are saving $30 million on their energy bills every year.  (My mother is a good example: thanks to a few well-placed upgrades, her power bill is now half what it used to be.)
  • For every dollar invested by Efficiency NB, homeowners have invested nearly $5.  That’s resulted in $286 million of economic activity, plus a lot of jobs for a lot of New Brunswickers – and a lot of tax revenue.
  • With support from Efficiency NB, 42 of the province’s largest industrial facilities are now saving $30 million annually 
  • For every dollar invested by Efficiency NB, those large industries invested $52 – proof of the leveraging power of timely, well-placed incentives 
  • Since inception, Efficiency NB’s programs have prevented 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions

In 2010, the agency was awarded the prestigious International Star Award for Energy Efficiency – the first Canadian organization to ever receive it.

Perhaps most importantly, Efficiency NB has become a trusted brand: it’s where New Brunswickers know they can go for unbiased expert advice on best practices and best products.  

A head scratcher

So why is the agency being eliminated?  The official press release indicates that it’s “part of government’s platform commitments.”  But a search of the 2014 Liberal Party Platform yields not one mention of Efficiency NB.  In fact, the closest reference might be this promise: to “(reinstate) home energy efficiency retrofit programs to reduce energy use and lower costs for consumers.”  Hardly sounds like a commitment to eliminate the agency.

I hope it’s not being cut because its CEO was a contentious appointee of the previous government; that would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  I also hope it isn’t being eliminated to pave the way for NB Power to take over energy efficiency programs.  Much as I respect the folks who keep our lights and heat on, I can’t help but think that entrusting energy reduction strategies to the company that makes its money selling energy is an inherent conflict of interest.  (And what then of homes not heated with electricity?) 

I’m well aware of NB’s financial predicament, but energy efficiency is good for our environment and good for our economy.  Every dollar we don’t have to ship out-of-province for imported energy is another we can spend locally – and that brings us closer to true self sufficiency, a goal we all share.  As other jurisdictions get more serious about efficiency, it seems incomprehensible that we would appear to be abandoning it.

Worth reconsidering

Every government makes mistakes, and new governments are especially prone to them.  But courageous leaders recognize their mistakes and have the strength of character to correct them.  In 2000, the government of Bernard Lord – with no small amount of prodding from the province’s agriculture and fisheries industries – reversed its ill-advised cuts.  

Will the government of Brian Gallant have the courage to do the same?