Fuel poverty affects nearly one household in five, according to a team from McGill University's Canada Research Chair in Housing, Community and Health, which has been studying the phenomenon for four years.

"Fuel poverty refers to the difficulty of accessing or affording energy services in the home, of maintaining comfortable temperatures in the home and of living in dignity," explains Mylène Riva, who holds the research chair and is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at McGill University. "We see fuel poverty, for example, in households that have to decide where to allocate their monthly budget, whether to pay the electricity bills or put food on the table.

"Fuel poverty is not just a bill that households receive that is too high for their ability to pay, it's also inadequate housing conditions", she adds, citing as examples poorly insulated houses, those with mould problems, or dwellings that are damp and difficult to heat.

The situation in Canada

One of the team's most recent studies was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 2023, and attempted to explore the association between fuel poverty in Canadian households and health using data from the 2018 Canadian Housing Survey.

"Statistically significant associations were observed between living in a fuel-poor household and reporting poorer general health and poorer mental health," said Riva.

Another of their studies, published in Energy Research and Social Science in 2021, reveals that 19 per cent of Canadian households are in fuel poverty, three percentage points more than in Quebec. The situation remains particularly worrying in the Maritimes, where one household in three is thought to be affected.

Results obtained by the Canada Research Chair in Housing indicate that fuel poverty affects rural areas more than urban areas. A number of factors are thought to contribute to this disparity, including the socio-economic status of households, but also the make-up of the dwelling: 'What we see in rural areas is houses that are bigger. (...) and different employment opportunities," said Riva.

An unfair energy transition?

While the issue of fuel poverty has long remained in the shadows of public policy, the subject is resurfacing as Canada seeks to complete its energy transition, according to the researchers.

"Most of the programs that exist at the moment target home-owning households, and often home-owning households with the capacity to borrow to carry out energy-efficient renovations, or with the capacity to pay for the renovations and be reimbursed through the programmes later on," said Riva.

She points out that this energy transition is taking place at a time when Canadian households are going through "an affordability crisis."

In her view, programs need to take account of the equity dimension to ensure that the transition can be everyone's business.

"Combating fuel poverty is essential for a fair energy transition and for climate resilience", says the study published in 2023.

A battery of tests to come

Riva admits that a great deal of work remains to be done in order to paint an accurate picture of fuel poverty in Canada.

As a first step, her team is continuing its collaboration with Bridgewater, in Nova Scotia, to assess the impact of one of its projects aimed at reducing energy costs and developing affordable solutions.

In 2022, the team carried out a survey of some 500 Bridgewater residents, and the results were particularly revealing.

"Thirty-eight per cent of respondents were said to be in fuel poverty, 12 per cent said they had had trouble sleeping the previous winter because their home was too cold, and eight per cent said they could see their breath in their home," says Riva.

The Canada Research Chair in Housing, Community and Health is continuing to gather data in Quebec and would like to pay particular attention to the situation of tenants.

"The researchers are also organizing a colloquium on the subject at the 91st congress of the Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (ACFAS) in May. It's a theme that's gaining in importance and interest," said Riva.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on March 3, 2024.