The Liberals look a bit dim on Efficiency Nova Scotia

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The recent 19.5% rate hike the Utility and Review Board imposed on Nova Scotia Power ratepayers (read-all of us) has served to shine a light on the rather dim Liberal policy toward Efficiency Nova Scotia.

When Andrew Younger took office as Energy Minister, the folks in the department wasted no time in pulling out the Power Point presentation on the merits of ENS. Apparently the newly minted Minister nodded in appreciation and quickly began the thinking of ways to back pedal on his party’s election promise to remove the surcharge on our power bills and send it over to Nova Scotia Power.

Andrew is no dummy. I suspect he may have seen this coming. I mean really, you could almost envision the pre-election napkin scribbling. Everyone hates that damn surcharge. Everyone hates Nova Scotia Power. Let’s make them pay it. Perfect! 

But there’s a problem. For a party that has railed against the monopolistic nature of NSP, giving them the bill for what acts essentially as their only competition, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In spite of all the smiling, happy people standing behind the information pamphlets and CFL bulbs at Home Hardware, it’s snappy website and slick advertising, most people in Nova Scotia still remain largely in the dark about the benefits of ENS and its importance to improving power rates over the long-term.

I normally don’t agree with Chronicle Herald columnist Ralph Surette on much (If anything) however in his latest screed in Saturday’s paper he rightly points out his disagreement with what he called the Liberals “whining” around Efficiency Nova Scotia.

The Liberals policy on ENS in the last election was wrong-headed and poorly thought through. I said so at the time and maintain it may have been easy to sell the idea of eliminating the premium charged on power bills and shifting the burden of ENS on to Nova Scotia Power books, what they didn’t explain was how this would be recouped by NSP and the problems it would create for the agency.

It was a dumb promise at the time and is still a dumb idea that Energy Minister Andrew Younger will spend the next year or so trying to figure out how to back away from without looking like a complete idiot.

Efficiency Nova Scotia is a very good idea. It’s a good use of money. It empowers and benefits consumers and it should serve to eventually keep power rates in check through the simple laws of supply and demand.

lt has also been an abject communications failure. In spit of spending nearly 4 million dollars a year in marketing and communications ENS remains a very simple idea, poorly defined. I would be surprised if more than 1 in 10 people in this province could explain what Efficiency Nova Scotia is designed to do, in spite of the fact that everybody who rents or owns a property in this province forks over money every month to keep it afloat.

Granted, ENS got off to a rocky start when Premier Rodney MacDonald appointed Heather Foley Melvin to set up the entity as CEO of Conserve Nova Scotia. Ms. Melvin was a political lightning rod who had run MacDonald’s leadership campaign and had a brief tenure as Rodney’s Chief of Staff.

Her appointment to head Conserve Nova Scotia was widely regarded as blatant patronage and in spite of her abilities and the validity of the Conserve Nova Scotia purpose, most people didn’t care much about WHY we were doing this and saw the body as little more than an unnecessary arm of government flogging expensive light bulbs and programs people neither wanted or understood.

I will admit, I was one of them, but I took their free LED Christmas lights.

When the NDP took power, they saw the value of Conserve Nova Scotia but also saw the need to re-brand, re-tool as an arm’s-length body and re-sell the idea. Efficiency Nova Scotia was born. Giving the top job to Allan Crandlemire, a bureaucrat from the Department of Energy, probably didn’t help distinguish ENS from government, however that might have been a good time to tell people exactly WHY it should exist.

I will give the folks at ENS marks for trying. When I was hosting my radio program I was approached several times to have people on the program to try to explain the benefits of ENS programs. Donald Dodge appeared a few times. Generally, people just called in to say why they were pissed off about the surcharge on their power bill but occasionally some of the people who had actually taken advantage of the ENS programs added their testimony.

I never got the sense the message was getting through. Eventually, it came to the point where ENS offered to let me go through a home audit process and then report back the findings, and savings on the air. Presumably my audience would then believe. I was laid off before getting the opportunity to testify myself, but suffice to say, I became a believer.

In theory, appealing to “what’s in it for me” as a communications strategy makes sense. Tell the story in such a way that individual homeowners would see how they can benefit from this 70 odd million dollar agency. Unfortunately, “I’m from the government and I’m to help you.” is what people were hearing.

Here’s what I see as the problems.

First, most people think ENS is a part of government, siphoning off money on behalf of NSP. It isn’t (In spite of the fact that former bureaucrats are running the show.). It’s an arm’s-length, not-for-profit with a mission to save consumers money. Really.

Second, the micro approach isn’t working by itself. So, maybe it’s time to look at public policy and the common good. After all, isn’t that why people accept their responsibility to pay taxes?

So in an effort to try to validate the 72 million dollars or so being siphoned out of our pockets every year to float this boat, I will try to explain in the simplest of term why I believe ENS is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

  • The people of Nova Scotia waste a huge amounts of electricity. Inefficient, antiquated technology, combined with leaky buildings, siphons off literally billions of kilowatt-hours of wasted power every year. If we save this energy, we don’t have to pay for it. ENS provides the evidence that its programs have saved Nova Scotia collectively nearly 68 million dollars in energy in 2013, and that number is growing…quickly.
  • If we save it, we don’t have to generate it. if we don’t have to generate it we reduce demand. If demand is reduced, cost may not immediately retreat, but we will avoid the cost of building unnecessary power generation capacity and having it downloaded upon us down the road.

Case closed.

As for the Liberals silly idea of shifting the cost of ENS over to Nova Scotia Power, I’ll simply quote Catherine Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre. As she eloquently put it in an interview with CTV News, “Efficiency Nova Scotia is at this point the greatest competitor Nova Scotia Power has in this province…We can’t hamstring (Nova Scotia Power’s) ability to operate as a business, and taking away half of their profits to pay for their largest competitor would do just that.”

Regardless, Efficiency Nova Scotia still has some important communications work to do. ENS has lots of glossy promotional material, complete with “fun facts” and those happy, smiling, stock photo people generously populating their website and annual report. The problem is, while trying to say everything…very little is getting through.

Most folks only see the 5 bucks tacked on to their power bill and wonder why they have to pay it..

In one of their smarter moves, ENS hired away former Atlantic VP Leanne Hachey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. She has proven herself at CFIB as someone who can crystallize an idea in the public consciousness. Her concise messaging on the URB ruling is the latest evidence of this talent. So there is some hope here.

Given the latest flailing around by the Energy Minister on this file, I suspect the light bulb is beginning to come on in the Liberal caucus office that their back-of-the-napkin election policy on ENS was a bit dim.

Expect something new in the spring.

Oh…and a bit of advice directly to Efficiency Nova Scotia, stop sending me those letters every month saying how efficient my house is…it’s a little creepy.

4 Replies to “The Liberals look a bit dim on Efficiency Nova Scotia”

  1. Mr. Morgan, you make a great argument in support of ENS and in principle I believe that most people get it. Most individuals do not disagree with the idea of ENS nor the need to encourage homeowners and businesses reduce their dependence upon and inefficient use of electricity. What I and many others believe however, is that the government has no business forcing taxpayers, through legislation, to pay for an organization that in no way can be considered an essential service that government is mandated to provide to Nova Scotians. Successive governments over the past fifteen or so years have driven our province to nearly $14 billion in debt and it must stop. The only way to stop is to start concentrating on providing only the essential services like Health, Education, Infrastructure, Social Services and management of our assets. The private sector is more than capable of performing the functions of ENS, including all of the personnel now employed with ENS but at no cost to the taxpayer under private sector management. A user pay system working to support those who volunteer to subject their homes to upgrades while funding the program through cost savings is much more palatable for taxpayers than requiring all Nova Scotians to subsidize a program, without choice, to benefit the few that do see the benefits for which I am sure there are many. Education on this issue is sorely lacking and that is where the Liberal government should be redirecting their funding that currently supports yet another non essential bureaucracy. In addition taxpayers are tired of paying out monies year after year for government largesse in the form of non essential services when all they want is good health care, roads, schools and a balance of expenditures on those who are in the most need in our society. Cut this albatross called Efficiency NS loose and if it is, as you say viable, then let the private sector take it on, remove the forced taxes on our power bills, transfer the government funding back to basics and deal with NS Power and its out of control monopoly that is a major roadblock for economic growth in Nova Scotia.

  2. Just a small typo; feel free to delete this comment once you fix it: “In spit of spending nearly 4 million dollars a year in marketing and communications…” Great column, though.

  3. The private sector is NOT capable of doing what Efficency Nova Scotia does . Rate payer funded efficiency programs are the norm in many US states and elsewhere, because they make sense. It cost less to save electricity than it costs to generate more. Even NS Power admits that.

    People like Andrew Younger and Mr. Olive are welcome to their opinions, but their dislike for Efficiency NS is not based on facts. Nothing is more dangerous than policy made from blind ideology, pandering to uninformed voters by telling them you will lower power rates by killing the only chance we’ll ever get to really stop the spiraling increases. That kind of backward thinking is what got us into the position of paying Canada’s highest power rates in the first place.

    I for one am glad NS is trying to catch up with the rest of the world. It’s too bad more Nova Scotians don’t see it.

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