Of the many truths the pandemic has revealed and reinforced, electricity remains one of the most important resources we have to power our daily lives.
But, the unseen costs that come with having a place to call home, like paying for food, insurance, and mortgages, can place people in difficult situations. Often, renters and homeowners need to forgo paying their energy bills or making energy-saving upgrades in order to save money. Because of this, many low income families can’t meet their basic needs to lead happy, healthy lives.
This is called energy poverty, also defined by individuals or families who devote at least 6 per cent or more of their expenses to energy. According to the 2016 census, 1.1 million households in Ontario were experiencing energy poverty.
As most people across our region continue to work and stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19, energy affordability is more important than ever.
One year of the AffordAbility Fund pilot
In March 2020, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, United Way East Ontario launched a community outreach pilot program with the AffordAbility Fund Trust (AFT) aimed at testing a theory that if we provide focused outreach and support for those who struggle to pay their hydro bills, they’d be better off long-term. To bring these benefits to as many people as possible experiencing energy poverty, we partnered with other United Ways, local utility companies and frontline agencies across Ontario.
Through the pilot, we aimed to find “hard-to-reach” individuals who just need a little extra guidance navigating the various energy programs available to them. This could be seniors, people with disabilities, newcomers—anyone who faces barriers to accessing information or who may struggle with isolation, lack of transportation, digital literacy, language barriers, or other challenges.
Our team of four Outreach Coordinators spread across agencies in Ottawa, Simcoe-Muskoka, and Bruce Grey, planned for seminars, community events, and workshops. These coordinators received specialized training to help people though the AffordAbility Fund application process, acting as regular and trusted points of contact to their clients.
Soon after the pilot launched, COVID-19 restrictions came into play and we quickly shifted our pilot to 100% virtual outreach. That meant Zoom presentations, phone calls, electronic brochures, social media campaigns, and flyer mail-outs.
Despite having to pivot entirely, we managed to help more than 200 households across Ottawa, Simcoe-Muskoka, and Bruce Grey access energy-saving retrofits like smart thermostats, fridges, freezers, and heat-pumps through the AFT and the Home Assistance Program (HAP).
These free upgrades helped people reduce their energy usage. As a result, families saved on hydro, stayed warm through the winter, and often had an increased shelf life for their food—which became a necessity when simply going to the grocery store became a risk. We also helped those same beneficiaries access other local programs that could help address food insecurity, crisis situations, and mental health—supports that became even more vital during the pandemic.
The AffordAbility Fund used local relationships and local organizations to reach people who could benefit the most from energy saving programs.
We spoke to a few clients who accessed the pilot program. Here are their stories:
Tahani is 61 and lives in Ottawa with her husband and son. She first heard about the AFT program through one of the WhatsApp groups she’s a part of for Arabs living in Ottawa. When a member posted a video about the program and urged anyone who was interested to reach out to Lobna Aggour, one of the AFT’s outreach coordinators based out of Ottawa’s Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Tahani did just that.
Tahani’s hydro bills averaged around $150 per month, and she constantly faced problems with being able to adjust the heat and air conditioning in her home. She had been researching new thermostats at her local hardware store and finally decided to pay for an upgrade. A few days later after her initial outreach, Lobna let Tahani know that she was eligible for a free upgrade under the AFT pilot program. Soon after, an assessor came to Tahani’s home and installed a new Alexa Ecobee Smart Thermostat.
Along with the thermostat, Tahani’s family also received an energy-saver surge-protected power strip, an outdoor timed power switch, LED light bulbs, and other energy-saving upgrades for their home. Lobna worked with Tahani throughout the application process and fulfillment, connected her with small business loans resources for her son, and provided information about Consumer Protection Ontario to deal with a past legal financial problem.
Tahani has been in Canada for 20 years and has a journalism background, so she understands the incredible power of information. After her experience with the AFT, she’s taken on the role as an informal outreach coordinator by sharing the resources she accessed with friends and strangers through Facebook and WhatsApp.
“There are people who come to Canada and can live here for a while, and don’t know about what’s available,” she says. “When I see something that helps me, I would like to spread it out for everyone who’s looking to do something, and start a new life here in Canada. This information she [Lobna] passed to me really helped me.”
Mabel is 62 and lives on a single person fixed income in Bruce Grey. She heard about the AFT from a neighbour and called to find out how the program could help her with expensive hydro bills. The outreach coordinator in the area, Kim Williams, discovered a variety of other needs, including Mabel’s outdated appliances, her lack of access to internet or a computer, and need for a new scooter and walker that would help her various disabilities.
“When you live on $1,000 or under to pay hydro, gas, and water, you don’t have any money for anything else,” says Mabel.
Having grown up on a farm, she’s been growing her own food in a personal garden all her life. But, over the past few years, Mabel has been having a harder time walking, which impacts her quality of life.
“Doing just about anything I used to do, now takes me hours. Kim asked if she could call the doctors to talk to them about things, and they have come in and done an assessment for putting a chair lift from my main floor to my basement, so I can go down to my freezers, my preserve room, and my washing machine,” she says.
The assessors saw how much Mabel had ensured her own food security by preserving her garden harvests, so they suggested the Save on Energy program to replace her two old freezers. They also replaced and installed new light bulbs, hot water tank insulation, a power bar and clothes drying rack.
“I think it’s thanks to United Way …. I’ve called them [the assessors] in the past and this is the only time they came in for an assessment,” she says. “I am over the moon and you folks are doing such a good thing for people!”
On top of these improvements, the AFT outreach coordinator also referred Mabel to a variety of community supports, advocated on her behalf for paper billing from her hydro provider, spoke to her family doctor about an assessment for a new scooter, and referred Mabel to the financial literacy coordinator at her local United Way.
“I appreciate everything that’s being done for me. They are doing more than I ever, ever expected. I’m now just waiting on a call for when the freezers and humidifiers can be delivered because of everything that’s going on [due to COVID-19],” says Mabel. “If anybody needs more help and is like me, I’ll give them Kim’s number any day of the week!”
Bernice is 60 and lives in the outskirts of Ottawa in Dunrobin. She heard about the AFT from Hydro Ottawa when she called about her bill.
“My washer and dryer were just apartment sized units and on their last legs. I was driving to Carp or Almonte to do my laundry at the laundromat,” she says.
The outreach coordinator in her area, Heather Brown, based out of the Nepean Rideau Osgoode Community Resource Centre, arranged for an assessment. In August 2020, a home energy advisor installed basic home upgrades and determined Bernice was eligible for a new washer, dryer, and freezer, all three of which were installed this past January.
Heather was also able to refer Bernice to legal supports that could help her through her divorce, including Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), Family Mediation Ottawa, 211, Steps to Justice, Community Legal Services, and the Ontario Legal Information Centre.
“My new motto now is ‘stay positive and test negative’,” adds Bernice.
Fast forward a year later, and the theory of activating our community to reach those who need help addressing energy affordability has been successful.
The pilot built a network of community agencies to refer their clients back to us, and in the end, those who went through the pilot were eligible for some of the highest upgrades available. As this pilot comes to an end, our analysis shows there are many benefits to making this program a long-term fixture in our communities:
- First, it provides necessary upgrades to lower a beneficiary’s energy bills—putting money back in their pocket.
- Second, it connects clients with a lifeline of additional wrap-around support services to address other challenges they might be facing.
As our region continues to deal with the challenges related to COVID-19, we must not forget those who struggle to keep the lights on and risk falling through the cracks. When we work together, we can lift up everyone in our communities.