Another environmental black hole: home energy audits

Canadian governments are spiralling towards making energy policy as complicated and onerous as possible for the average consumer

NASA recently reported that its space telescopes witnessed the birth of a new black hole. In a spiral galaxy some 22-million light-years away, scientists noted that where star N6946 BH1 had once been, there was now a light-grabbing mass defined by enormous gravitational pull.

Homeowners in Canada may soon have a similar sensation, but they won’t have to look to the sky to see it. This country may be on the verge of witnessing the birth of a new, money-grabbing boondoggle as governments spiral towards making energy policy as complicated and onerous as possible for the average consumer.

A coalition of environmental advocacy groups headlined by the Pembina Institute recently released a set of 10 demands directed toward the federal and provincial governments regarding the construction industry. The group says these changes are necessary if Canada is to reach its overly-ambitious (some might say impossible) 2030 targets under the Paris climate change agreement.

While this energy policy manifesto covers many aspects of residential and commercial buildings, the item most likely to affect homeowners is its call for “universal benchmarking and home energy labelling across the country.” In other words, mandatory energy audits. While new homes across Canada may feature Energy Star federal government certification or similar programs, this new proposal goes much further by making an energy audit a requirement for every house to be sold, including older dwellings.

Mandatory pre-sale energy audits are being promoted as a harmless bit of information for home buyers and sellers. “It’s just another way for a home to be valued,” Karen Tam Wu of the Pembina Institute told the Canadian Press.

That’s one way to look at it.

Here’s another: this will become yet another time-consuming and costly requirement laid at the feet of harried home owners. Alongside all the other myriad legal, financial and practical issues that must be sorted out prior to listing a house, you may soon have to arrange a bothersome home energy audit.

If governments follow up on this demand, the impact will be felt by everyone who owns a house. And with audits typically priced at $400 to $600, this is not an insignificant obligation. (Although rebates sometimes cover part of the cost.) This burden will inevitably fall hardest on modest-income home owners. Mandatory energy audits will also punish owners of older, less energy-efficient homes. If you own a heritage home today, be warned that your house will become harder to sell in the future, as disclosure of energy costs becomes yet another item to be obsessed over by prospective buyers, along with local schools, commuting routes and neighbours.

While the notion of mandatory energy audits is just at the lobbying stage nationally, for Ontario residents it’s soon to be a harsh reality. As laid out in the province’s climate change plan, beginning in 2019: “energy audits [will] be required before a new or existing single-family home can be listed for sale, and the energy rating will be included in the real estate listing.”

Ontario has promised to pay the full cost of these audits, an expense of approximately $125 million per year. But this commitment only covers the first two years of the program. Anyone planning to sell their house after 2020 may end up having to shoulder some cost. That’s because the money to cover these audits is supposed to come from the province’s share of income taxed from the province’s cap-and-trade program. If, as appears to be the case, revenue from cap-and-trade disappoints, someone else is going to have to pick up the tab. Who might that be?

Beyond uncertainty about the cost of Ontario’s “free” audits, there are plenty of other unexplained aspects of this plan. How often will audits have to be performed? Will a 10-year-old audit suffice when it comes time to sell your house or will you need to get a new one before every sale? It’s hardly a stretch to imagine mandatory energy audits metastasizing in unexpected and unpleasant ways, as complicated bureaucratic programs are wont to do.

Given that Ontario will be the first to go ahead with this idea, it seems particularly relevant to consider the fate of an earlier provincial environmental audit program: Ontario’s Drive Clean boondoggle. This mandatory vehicle emissions test began in 1999. Since then, air quality in Ontario has improved dramatically but for reasons entirely unrelated to Drive Clean.

A 2012 report by Ontario auditor general found that in addition to being irrelevant, Drive Clean was also riddled with inconsistencies, undesirable outcomes and opportunities for fraud. Rather than helping the environment, its main outcome was to force most car owners to pay for an emissions test that had absolutely no impact on air pollution. It did, however, produce a healthy surplus for government.

Now the same people who designed this ineffective program want to get inside your home.

Canadians are well supplied with complicated, expensive and irrelevant environmental programs. We certainly don’t need another. Let’s leave black holes to deep space and avoid the requirement for mandatory energy audits at home.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a journalist, policy research analyst and contributor to Canadians for Affordable Energy.

mandatory energy audits

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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