Symbolic environmentalism alive and well in Metro Vancouver

The single family home is considered an energy pig compared to other forms of housing

With Canucks fans busy painting themselves in the team’s colours, a few civic politicians are doing their best to portray themselves as green as well. This time it’s Vancouver and Surrey who are suffering from a bad case of “symbolic environmentalism.”

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson kicked things off by announcing he wants his city to get into the banking business in order to promote his latest green scheme. With the exception of the NPA’s Suzanne Anton, Vancouver city council all voted in favour of a new program that will lend money to homeowners to help them purchase items such as low-energy furnaces.

As they did with the Olympic Village development, the city put up cash to guarantee potential loan defaults. In partnership with a local credit union, up to 500 lucky homeowners can secure a low-interest loan to make their home more eco-friendly.

While I don’t take issue with the goal to make single-family homes more energy efficient, I do have concerns regarding local governments delving into what should be the role of senior levels of government or utility companies. Shouldn’t it be BC Hydro or Environment Canada with their deep pockets spearheading this type of program?

Robertson and his Vision colleagues argue that it’s hard for some homeowners to get a low-interest loan from their bank to buy a new furnace. In other words, the banking industry has deemed the risks to be too high to support these kinds of loans. So does that mean taxpayers should come to the rescue?

Meanwhile, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and her council recently passed a bylaw that requires new gas stations to offer alternative fuels. On the surface it sounds like a noble effort that could yield some good results. However, when you scratch the surface, you realize this is more about green PR than any concerted effort to combat climate change.

The reality is there are few new gas stations being built anywhere today. In fact, in large urban areas like Metro Vancouver, many have actually closed up over the last decade or so. As a result, this bylaw will likely have little impact reducing greenhouse gas emissions for years to come.

Rather than tinkering around the edges to score green points in the media, our regional leaders should be tackling the real problems of urban sprawl and low-density neighbourhoods. Symbolic environmentalism might make politicians feel good, but it simply doesn’t help any of us to reduce the amount of energy we use.

– Post by Daniel. This column was originally published in 24 Hours Vancouver. You can follow us on Twitter @CityCaucus. Or you can "like" us on Facebook at Facebook/CityCaucus.

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  • Barry

    Thank god the election is coming in Nov to get rid of these nut bars. I thought Sammy was a cooke till gregy and his goofballs took over. Thank god I don’t live in Vancouver or work for the City of Vancouver anymore. After 37 years. What a bunch of nutbars running the city.

  • Here is my comment from CC’s 11 December “Who is Vision’s six million dollar man?”:
    Is Van City the 6 million dollar man?
    “Vancouver’s Energy Plan to Include Home Retro”
    The Vision Home Energy Retro Plan announced Wednesday [December, 2010] is another flawed, poorly thought through initiative. The plan is more smoke and mirrors. And, when the smoke clears the homeowner may be standing in front of his mirror with his house in the background but with a chunk or two missing. Here’s why:
    1] BC Hydro’s successful Power Smart programme has already been in place for a number of years [Jeff Lee: “Although governments and energy producers like BC Hydro have been involved in energy retrofit programs from time to time…..”]. Why is it necessary to duplicate this province wide initiative? Why not continue to support it and promote it?
    2] The Mayor says: “The City of Vancouver ….. will finance renovations and allow homeowners to pay for them through property taxes”. The City of Vancouver is not a bank. The City should not be getting its fingers into financing home renovations. That’s what banks do.
    The last homeowner this Vision Council tried to help, Millennium Developments, are now bankrupt.
    My advice to Vision is stick to looking after City of Vancouver business and let the banks and homeowners make their own financial arrangements. The City’s direct involvement is only going to add another layer of bureaucracy and complexity. In addition, when there are, and there will be, any legal disputes between the home owner and the bank, the City will be drawn in as at least a third party, adding legal costs to the City.
    3] Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston says the programme will be: “be self-financing with no cost to City taxpayers” Don’t count on it. And he says further: “Homeowners …….repay the money with interest calculated to cover administration and financing”. Now, how’s this going to save the homeowner money? Vision is saying the financing will be from Canadian banks. As far as I know banks charge interest and, even if they knock a point off because the City, and, the bank will presumably lend the money as a mortgage attached to the title of the house, the City’s “administration costs” will more than offset any saving. So, why does the City need to insert itself into this tried and true business relationship?
    Many homeowners pay their taxes twice a year. If they also repay their loan with two payments per year the interest charges will be horrendously high. This scenario highlights another reason why tying the loan payments to property taxes is bogus, unnecessary and counter productive.
    4] I, as a NPA Council candidate, fully support energy conservation by homeowners and renters as well. In my architectural practice I have had considerable energy conservation experience and have been involved in many retrofit and new energy efficient projects. And in the process, having done the calculations I am well aware that the payback for many energy saving solutions such as “weather-stripping and insulation to energy-efficient appliances and thermal hot water systems” often have long payback periods in the range of 7 to 15 years. This is considerably longer than the typical 3 to 5 year bank loan payback period. If the retro loan payback reflects the energy payback period the interest costs will again be horrendously high. Should the City be getting in the middle of these kinds of decisions?
    As an architect I have and, as a Councilor I will continue to encourage home owners to do what they can to save energy, not always because it’s cost effective in the short term but, because it increases the comfort level of the home and it’s the right thing to do. But, make your arrangements directly with your bank if financing is necessary. Don’t get bogged down in an unnecessary three way financial arrangement involving the City of Vancouver.
    5] What are the details of the “On-Bill Financing Program”? The provincial government should think long and hard as to whether the City of Vancouver needs this added authority and the associated risk. Why hasn’t there been a public discussion about this proposal?
    6] Lastly, who is the mystery “private backer”, the six million dollar man? Vision promised “open, transparent government”. This is another example of Vision doing the opposite of what they promised.

  • George

    Why is the cut off number for loans to retrofit 500…that number keeps coming up..
    500 year plan etc…
    I also wonder if you have to be a Vision member to qualify?

  • Max

    Bill, I agree, 100% that I do not want to see the city becoming a personal banker to anyone.
    Regardless of the estimated 10% loan default, that is still money out of each taxpayer’s pocket, on top of everything else our rising taxes are covering off.
    I am also concerened that his move requires the Charter to be changed, again.
    But the move to charge an administration charges is new. When I watched the meeting, the city had not planned on charging an admin fee, which to me is a stupid move as then we would be covering off those overhead costs as well.
    Next, does this mean hiring in new city staffers to do the paperwork?

  • Julia

    The city charges a 15% admin fee for any non-tax related service they provide.
    More interesting – it requires a Charter change? They could be waiting at least a year for that one or may be told to forget it.

  • gman

    Never in a million years would I let the city attach their name to my home.The US economy is going down the tubes and there are lean times ahead for us to follow.Debt is the big enemy now,interest rates will rise and if you fall short you may be able to deal with a bank but the city can grab your home in a newyork minute.

  • Your rumination about the Charter are interesting Max. It’s worth pursuing.
    There is no question this will, yet again, cost all taxpayers money to serve the property interests of a few. Where is accounting of this misadventure?

  • Max

    Julia, when this topic was discussed there were no admin fees being included in the orignal reports drafted.
    Councilor Anton questioned this – due to the overhead/handling costs.

  • Max

    The mention about having to make changes to the Charter came up during that council meeting.
    Perhaps it has to do with the City having to ask the Province to act as a lender – to operate as the underwriter on these loans?

  • Max

    You can see the mention of ‘Charter change’ in the power point produced by the city – May, 31, 2011 – Greenest City 2020 Home Energy Loan Program (HELP)
    It mentions the application being put forward in the fall of 2011.
    Pages 25-28.

  • Max

    On another note:
    Councilor Anton put forward that the City ask the Province for financial aid covering the Stanely Cup playoffs.
    I see Robertson is now capitalizing on that ‘suggestion’ – (kind of like how he capitalized on Mike’s push for fan zones and the opening of Rogers Arena…behind every great idea is an NPA councilor or candidate!)
    Robertson hoping provincial and federal governments will chip in for costs of Canucks events
    Vancouver/CKNW (AM980)
    Charmaine de Silva | Email news tips to
    The estimated $1.3-million cost for policing and hosting outdoor events for the Canucks Stanley Cup run is well worth it.
    That according to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.
    But with a tax windfall for the provincial and federal governments thanks to food and liquor sales in the downtown core…Robertson is hoping the other levels of government help pay for the events.
    “it would be nice if we had some support for our budget, but that’s in their hands…but hopefully they will come through with something.”
    On Tuesday, City Council is expected to approve taking $680,000 dollars out of reserves to help pay for the festivities.

  • Julia

    I heard an interesting comment about the festivities last week when I was lurking about the Hall.
    Much of the festivities have been planned with the urging of the VPD as a way to control the chaos downtown. They have to give these people something to do and a way to manage the bodies or we risk some serious problems. Olympics taught them a lot but the costs… wow. Hard to know which is worse – expense in anticipation or expense for emergency crowd control and property damage.

  • Max, you should have used caps for the “HOPE” quote. I have never heard such a wimpy response from someone elected to be an advocate for the interests of Vancouver taxpayers.
    Mr. Mayor, you don’t “HOPE”, you have a strategy and a plan to approach the senior governments before hand, not after the fact.

  • Bill

    The impediment to converting to more energy efficient furnaces is more likely to be one of investment rather than financing – it takes too long to recover your cost from energy savings. That is why many programs involved outright grants to lower the capital outlay and reduce the payback period. Even then the investment is marginal and I am willing to bet most conversions were necessary replacement of worn out equipment. So not only is the City entering an area where they have no responsibility, they are doing it in an ineffective way – surprise, surprise.
    And if the homeowner can only finance the conversion with a guarantee from the City, they probably should not be taking on the debt.

  • Paul

    I swapped out a relatively new furnace (2006) for a heat pump/furnace combination. The timing was driven by the supposed expiration of the home owner grants earlier this year.
    I have tracked my gas and electrical bill very closely and, at current hydro rates, I am about $50/month ahead. Even with the grant, the total investment was about $7,500 which would give me a payback time frame of 12.5 years. If course, that time table could be out the window if Hydro jacks the rates in the next couple of years.
    I guess my only other comment is adding the value of the a/c effect in the summer to the PB calculation. If I could factor in a traditional a/c cost against the heat pump cost, I might be even further ahead.

  • So Unfair

    Why does this program only apply to single family home owners? Why are condo owners and renters excluded. Are we second class citizens when it comes to saving the environment? We deserve an answer.

  • Max

    From what I understand, condo owners etc, will be another phase of the program.
    Which means, more of our tax $$ being used for security.

  • chris (one of many)

    Which festivities?

  • Julia

    Chris, a TV screen with marked isles and some street entertainment are festivities. Anything… anything to add some structure and distraction is going to be good news tonight.
    Even a large contingent of female fans will help hold this together.
    Noticed the VPD is on Twitter in a big way today.
    Sorry, on this one, I am 100% behind the game plan. I don’t want to see businesses sweeping up broken glass tomorrow morning.