Canada Unveils Greener Homes Grants. Is It Welfare for the Rich?

Homeowners can get grants of up to $5,000. But we should be talking about carbon, not energy.

Katherine's house
A typical Canadian Home. K Martinko

Canada finally announced the details of the Greener Homes Grants, which we covered admiringly on Treehugger earlier because they were going to insist on a blower door test and a proper expert analysis of what was needed before they would give out the money, instead of letting it all get sucked by the replacement window scammers.

Now that the details are out, it raises some serious questions, going back to the basic principles of the program. It is not an unsophisticated proposal, noting that houses are complicated.

"Your home operates as a system. All of its elements – the walls, the roof, ventilation, heating and cooling systems, the external environment, and even the activities of the occupants – affect one another. How these elements interact determines your home’s overall performance. For example, poor insulation or ventilation can cancel out an investment in new windows or doors. It is always advisable to consider building envelope measures as the first part of your retrofit journey."

We have argued for years that the blower door is the tool that started a revolution in energy efficiency because we learned how much heat loss happens through simple leakage. As our hero, Harold Orr noted in an article a few years ago:

 "If you take a look at a pie chart in terms of where the heat goes in a house, you’ll find that roughly 10% of your heat loss goes through the outside walls.” About 30 to 40 % of your total heat loss is due to air leakage, another 10% for the ceiling, 10% for the windows and doors, and about 30% for the basement. “You have to tackle the big hunks,” says Orr, “and the big hunks are air leakage and uninsulated basement.”

The new program offers $600 grants for the required pre- and post- evaluations, $5,000 in grants for up to 700,000 homes, and up to $40,000 in interest-free loans.

But then they lay out limits. It will fund a maximum of $1,000 for air sealing, $5,000 for insulation, and $5,000 for windows and doors, $5,000 toward air and ground source heat pumps.

But energy isn't a problem these days—there is lots of it. The problem is carbon, and a new gas furnace is going to emit just marginally less and will lock the homeowner in for another decade. Furthermore, why give money to someone living in British Columbia or Quebec who lives better electrically and isn't emitting any carbon at all?

Green Energy Pyramid
Green Building Advisor

We know from past grant programs that nobody wants to put money into air sealing or insulation that nobody can see, they want the new windows, which studies have shown have the worst bang for the buck of any renovation decision. This famous Energy Conservation Pyramid from Minnesota Power is getting old (CFLs?) but is still valid, you start at the bottom and work your way up, and sealing is the first thing you do after changing your bulbs.

Contractors today don't get out of bed for a thousand bucks, it may not be enough to do a decent sealing job, and people don't understand its importance. If it is required by the energy advisor and checked before and after with a blower test then it might get done. But otherwise, the money will go into windows, which the homeowner believes will improve the resale value of the house.

Statistics Canada

And that is the crux of the problem. According to Statistics Canada, single-family houses make up 53.6% of homes in Canada, and it is dropping. In urban areas, it is 45%. Meanwhile, the average price of a house increased a whopping 42% from April 2020 to April 2021. People who own these houses are rolling in home equity in lottery-sized numbers.

Passive House expert Monte Paulsen calls these government grants "welfare for the rich," noting that any one of them could ping their bank and get a loan to cover this. In fact, the banks are probably already calling them. He tells Treehugger: "I would ban any handouts to single-family owners. Rather, I would tax owners of inefficient buildings to pay for programs for condo owners and affordable rental."

One has to wonder, why are the renters and other people who aren't on the homeowner gravy train paying taxes to give grants to the people who are?

Along with single-family homes, including semi-detached and townhomes, the program does fund small multi-unit residential buildings under 6,000 square feet. But the huge numbers of rental apartments and condos owned by people who couldn't afford houses are left out in the cold, figuratively and literally.

Energy and carbon equity is going to be one of the big issues of the next decade. Yet in the U.S., Saul Griffith wants to throw government money at solar roofs, and in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to throw money at people who are rolling in it. We've got this all completely backward.

Correction: I have removed references to gas furnaces that are not eligible.

View Article Sources
  1. "Census in Brief Dwellings in Canada." Statistics Canada.