Energy cost savings, massive job creation, and energy security and sovereignty are among the motivations behind the overwhelming support for energy efficiency efforts in Indigenous communities, concludes an exhaustive report released last month by Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise (ICE).
But the work faces a series of major obstacles, from the need for suitable training and job security for a wave of new energy efficiency workers, to paperwork requirements and even visiting home energy auditors that don’t always respect Indigenous communities and households.
The report [pdf] to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), “Enabling Efficiency,” was meant to foreground the perceptions, barriers, and needs of Indigenous communities and organizations. “The outcome is a set of recommendations for how to design programs and policies that truly enable Indigenous energy efficiency efforts,” writes ICE, an Ottawa-headquartered non-profit that plays a leading role in advancing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis participation in clean energy projects across Canada.
Following an in-depth literature review, ICE gathered detailed personal and professional responses on the subject of energy efficiency through direct outreach and engagement: one-on-one interviews that delved into participants’ experiences with energy efficiency projects or careers, focus groups that brought forth insights from underrepresented groups, especially in remote communities, and an anonymous survey designed to reach the broadest range of Indigenous peoples, particularly those who “may not normally have a chance to give input on the development of programs and funding.”
The report concludes with 10 recommendations for how NRCan programs aimed at accelerating energy efficiency can better support the values and needs of Indigenous peoples, recognizing that “there is no single pan-Indigenous experience” given geographic, cultural, and legal differences across communities and cultures. For example: federal housing and infrastructure funding is available to First Nations but not Métis or Inuit communities, geography often determines how easy or difficult it is to get energy efficiency work off the ground.
Whereas “an urban Indigenous person has virtually immediate access to construction supplies,” the report notes, “if someone in a remote community misses the summer shipping window to bring materials up by barge, their project could be a full year delayed or face exponentially higher costs required to fly in the supplies.”
Energy Efficiency Is Critical
By overwhelming margins, the research showed support for accelerating energy efficiency efforts in Indigenous communities, with nearly 90% rating as a four or five on a five-point scale, ICE reports. Among individuals and focus groups, the consensus on the importance of energy efficiency was “nearly 100%.”
Asked to explain their ranking, “nearly every interviewee” identified the need to reduce energy costs, and small wonder: the report notes that while retrofits that include electrification will save the average Canadian household about $114 to $151 per year, households in Indigenous communities could see annual savings between $255 and $1,275 from far better-insulated homes and the switch away from exorbitantly priced (and toxic) diesel fuel.
Many respondents also noted the role energy efficiency could play in building strong local economies. “It’s not just about building energy efficient homes,” said one interview participant. “It’s about building prosperous communities.”
Energy efficiency will be a “major job creator,” ICE writes. “Investments in the sector could generate up to 220,000 new jobs, with over 47,000 of those coming from Indigenous energy efficiency efforts.”
Energy security and sovereignty were also top of mind for respondents. With many remote communities “already running up on energy and water consumption limits,” one interview participant noted, energy efficiency offers a way to reduce load demands and ultimately make electrification easier.
Other respondents pointed out that energy efficiency aligns with core Indigenous values about land stewardship and the well-being of future generations. “Where renewable energy systems still rely on the extraction of natural resources, energy efficiency is simply using less overall and getting the most out of what is used,” ICE writes.
And when respondents were asked to identify “appealing characteristics” in a career in energy efficiency, the top choice was “a tangible way to make a difference on climate change,” followed closely by “makes a difference to housing for my people”.
‘Deciding Between Groceries and Light Bulbs’
When discussion turned to the obstacles to energy efficiency, how to pay for projects was the top question for more than half of survey respondents and many interview and focus group participants. Up-front costs were identified as a “major” challenge, especially for the many households that live paycheque to paycheque.
It isn’t easy to choose energy efficiency when it means “deciding between groceries and light bulbs,” one interview participant said.
Compounding the problem is the fact that “for Indigenous communities and housing organizations, the costs to implement energy efficiency measures compete with the need to build more homes and keep up with basic repairs.”
ICE writes that Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services “currently provides services to 11,000 Indigenous people but estimates the actual need is closer to 90,000,” while Nunavut’s housing strategy is focused on a “severe housing shortage and staggering overcrowding rates”—problems that predate the territory’s establishment in 1999.
How communities can afford energy efficiency work when they need to build more homes was one of the top two questions for nearly 30% of survey participants.
And cost is an even bigger struggle for rural and remote communities. One interview participant who lives in a remote community said it would have cost $1,800 to bring in an energy advisor to conduct a mandatory energy audit in advance of an energy efficiency project—of which the federal Greener Homes program would only have covered $600.
And the daunting complexity of many grant applications was regularly cited as a key barrier to pursuing energy efficiency.
“Reading some of the questions, it would take someone with no education forever to fill it out,” said one interview participant. “They may not even know where to start.” Several participants singled out the 34-page “Toward Net-Zero” application form as a particularly egregious example of opaque paperwork, noting they “were not able to get through the first three pages.”
“I’ve got a master’s degree and [do] paperwork for a living,” said one participant. “Then think about it for someone who is working off a phone or tablet with poor internet access.”
ICE suggested NRCan include sample responses in its application form and introduce a process for would-be applicants to get feedback on their proposals, noting that Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) has done exactly that with its Community Energy Champions program.
Lack of capacity is another challenge. “Speaking to almost anyone who works in Indigenous housing, one of the first challenges that comes up is the capacity to manage housing in terms of personnel and training,” writes ICE. In British Columbia, for example, “almost half of the housing societies were under-resourced and needed more staff ,” and “30% [of First Nations] had either no housing manager or a part-time manager only to develop and manage the housing portfolio.”
Those gaps mean that people working in the sector are barely keeping afloat. “They are just working to keep their head above water,” said one interview participant. “[It’s] difficult to look at taking on more work,” particularly when “there is so much premature breakdown. They’re doing maintenance on buildings that are only a few years old.”
That level of work stress also leads to high turnover rates: “One participant estimated that there was a new housing manager every 1.5 years in their community,” ICE reports.
Training local people in key jobs—from energy auditors and project managers, to HVAC technicians and building envelope specialists—will be imperative to solving the capacity crunch.
‘Change at the Speed of Trust’
Since energy efficiency projects involve extensive collaboration with experts, they depend on respectful communication that builds trust. The need is particularly acute in Indigenous communities, ICE says.
As it stands, a lack of cultural understanding—which can often deepen existing levels of mistrust—remains a fundamental barrier to accelerating energy efficiency in Indigenous communities.
The problem often shows up in a mismatch of expectations: many participants recalled desperately hurrying to complete their applications on deadline, then waiting months to hear back from authorities.
Slow timelines, particularly with no explanation, “can lead to the community losing confidence in the project, the project lead, as well as whether the government truly cares,” ICE writes.
“Rush and stop. Rush and stop. It just doesn’t give you confidence to move forward,” one interview participant said.
“Participants further emphasized the impact of a lack of cultural awareness by noting that consultants from urban settings often do not understand how small Indigenous communities function and the level of engagement and support needed,” ICE writes. “Cultural awareness and sensitivity are integral to building the trust communities need.”
“Change happens at the speed of trust,” an interview participant added, and “years of intergenerational trauma means building trust takes a lot of work.”
Many participants emphasized the urgent need for contractors who physically enter people’s homes to understand the importance of trust-building.
“People living in poverty and/or with mental health issues may feel especially vulnerable in these situations,” ICE notes, adding that several respondents said they felt anxious that they would be judged. Project participants traced “horror stories” where contractors “get in, get out” and “don’t talk to us when they’re here.” To make the visits work, one interviewee said, “you need to go in and not judge, to understand where the trauma is, and be open.”
Recruiting and Keeping Local Talent
ICE estimates that the $5.4-billion investment required to deliver energy efficiency improvements in Indigenous communities could yield the equivalent of 47,190 full-time jobs. But only if local people can be convinced to invest time, money, and energy in training in the hope that an energy efficiency career will mean secure employment, at least over the medium term.
“Community members are not interested in receiving training for one-off or pilot projects,” the report states.
Because many Indigenous communities are very small, ensuring long-term employment “may require communities to look outside of their bounds and potentially collaborate regionally to provide a sustainable career pathway,” ICE writes. “Alternatively, communities could support individuals in developing multiple skills that together create a full-time role.”
Competitive pay is crucial. “Several interviewees described investing in training only to have the trainee go work in the nearest urban centre or a nearby mine because the pay was better.”
If they can be assured that a career in energy efficiency will be stable and secure, prospective experts-in-training will need significant funding and other support to ensure success. Several participants said those “wrap-around supports” will be essential given “social challenges such as substance use disorders, intergenerational trauma, racism, homelessness, access to transportation, etc.”
As well, the realities of “under-resourced rural and remote schools” will mean that “extra educational support is needed to fill the gaps for potential trainees interested in pursuing careers in energy efficiency.” Training programs that are purpose-built for Indigenous students should be located in communities, hands-on, and well-paced, with equal opportunity and access (for family caregivers, for example) always top of mind.
Relationships and Program Design
Many participants stressed that successful energy efficiency programs depend on building strong relationships. They “expressed how beneficial it is for them when they can pick up the phone and talk to their go-to contact at a funding agency who can guide them,” the report states. Those open, dependable lines of communication build trust, encourage collaboration, and ensure best practices that are fit for local needs and visions.
By building an “ecology of relationships” that includes “community governance and leadership, housing authorities and managers, residents and families, community administration, energy efficiency proponents and services, climate change action planning, and housing funders and agencies,” ICE writes, NRCan can help “to form a cornerstone for comprehensive planning for deep energy efficiency action.”
To deepen its relationships with communities, “NRCan should diversify where and how outreach is done for programs and initiatives,” the report adds. Sharing information on Indigenous and community radio stations “which are often a primary source of information for people, especially in rural and remote communities,” will work better than “conventional, non-interactive mechanisms like brochures” that aren’t as engaging. Fun and humour are sure winners.