We need protection now against home heating emergencies - say authors of new reports

March 9, 2009

Halifax, N.S. - Our safety is at risk when governments fail to respond effectively to changing heat supplies and prices, according to Larry Hughes, the lead author of two new reports released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Nova Scotia.

The reports: Energy security in the residential sector: Rapid responses to heating emergencies, Part 1: The Fundamentals by Larry Hughes and Part 2: Nova Scotia, by Larry Hughes and Dave Ron, shed light on the serious financial and health problems people have when they cannot access energy to heat their homes because of energy costs or supply shortages, or both—called heating emergencies.

Going without heat puts people at risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and other freezing and non-freezing cold-related injuries. Those trying to cope with the cold can sometimes further risk their health. For example, when people use various electrical devices as alternative heat sources, they increase the risk of house fires. Some people turn to burning unsafe materials, which can cause respiratory illness. Others use gasoline-powered generators and kerosene space heaters, thus increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. In order to reduce the cost of other expenses, some people increase their risk of accidents when they choose to turn off indoor lighting.

Since 1999, the annual average cost of purchasing 2,500 litres of fuel oil during the heating season doubled. The percentage of average, after-tax income spent by different Canadian economic families range from slightly over two percent for those in the highest income bracket (incomes over $85,000) to just under 19 percent for the lowest income bracket ($22,600 and under). Spending such a significant amount of income on heating means that these low-income families often face unhealthy choices, for example to ‘heat or eat.’

According to Larry Hughes, a professor in Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Dalhousie University, “there is no “quick fix” possible to prevent heating emergencies. However, there are ways that governments can protect their citizens during heating emergencies.” They outline many proposals in the reports. Governments can subsidize the cost of fuel for those in need of assistance, for example. However, if fuel shortages occur, subsidies will not make up the shortfall. In extreme heating emergencies, there is a need for a system of emergency shelters heated by a secure fuel source and available for longer-term accommodations.

While these recommendations apply to all jurisdictions, some jurisdictions are better positioned to deal with heating emergencies than others. According to Larry Hughes and Dave Ron (the second author on this report), “Years of inaction and misguided energy policies have made Nova Scotians vulnerable to the energy market. Nova Scotia is primed for heating emergencies.” Here are some of the reasons why:

• Houses in the province are older than in many other places in Canada, many of which are often poorly insulated, with a large number heated by inefficient oil furnaces; this means many individuals and families face paying more to heat their houses.

• In recent years, Nova Scotia Power’s ageing grid has been prone to brownouts and blackouts.

• Nova Scotia imports over 80 percent of its energy and each of the province’s major suppliers is experiencing problems that currently do, or could, affect supplies. Its energy supply is extremely insecure.

• The Nova Scotia government’s heating assistance programs are not adequately designed or targeted and leave many families in need without enough financial support.

• The province’s preparedness to provide essential services during heating emergencies, in the form of “Comfort Centres,” is inadequate.

As Christine Saulnier, the director of the CCPA-NS, said of these reports: “Everyone has a right to know how their governments plan to adequately protect them in the case of a heating emergency. Moreover, governments have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of their citizens. These reports should be a wake-up call for both citizens and governments.”


For more information and for media interviews, contact Christine Saulnier at 477-1252 or Larry Hughes 494-3950.

Professor Hughes will be presenting the findings from these reports at a panel discussion, Tuesday, March 10, 7pm at St. Mary's University in Sobey 165.
The panel is titled “Freezing in the dark? Energy security, heating emergencies, and electricity supply in Nova Scotia” and will also feature Claire McNeil from Dalhousie Legal Aid