12/03/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/01/2014 05:59 EST

EcoEnergy home retrofits' early end left funds unspent

A popular federal program in 2012 that allowed 250,000 Canadian homeowners to retrofit their homes and save on energy costs should have been better planned and lasted longer.

That's the conclusion reached in a heavily censored Natural Resources Canada briefing note that CBC News obtained through the Access to Information Act.

The May 17, 2012, memo reviewed the implementation of the ecoEnergy home retrofit program, "particularly the budgetary challenges that resulted in significant unspent funds."

The department was forced to release the briefing note after CBC News complained to the information commissioner.

The document's "Lessons Learned" section, from the department's housing division, notes the "program length should be better correlated to the length of time required for the work to be conducted, which means a minimum two-year program."

NDP natural resources critic, Peter Julian finds this conclusion interesting.

"I think it's fair to say that the government botched this program," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"Here was a widely popular program in terms of uptake from Canadians right across the country. Canadians were applying in huge numbers with all the clear benefits. The government just didn't seem to want the program to succeed. They have an inappropriate renewal length, particularly given the scope of the training that was required for energy advisers."

Although the department declined to answer direct questions about the briefing note, spokesperson Jacinthe Perras provided a written response that read in part: "The decision to provide time-limited funding demonstrated rigorous management by the government. The 2011-2012 phase of the program met its goal and we ensured that all participants would have access to a post-retrofit evaluation and a grant."

Helping homeowners use less energy

The 2011-12 program was an extension of one that began in 2007 under the new Conservative government, but initiated by the former Liberal government, to help people conserve energy by conducting energy audits of their homes and then making improvements to make them more energy efficient. The program had an initial budget of $160 million.

However, due to its popularity, the budget grew to $745 million. By the time the initial program ended in 2010, 640,000 Canadian homes had received an average federal grant of $1,500, which, according to Natural Resources Canada, allowed them to save an average of 20 per cent on their energy bills.

In July 2011, the federal government renewed the ecoEnergy home retrofit program for nine months, setting aside $400 million. The renewal had been announced in the March budget that was defeated by the opposition parties, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper campaigned on it in the ensuing election.

But, concerned about running out of money, the government officially stopped registration for the program two months early, in January 2012. By then, 253,000 homeowners had registered, receiving an average grant of $1,300. It's not known how many people were cut off.

Redactions in the Natural Resources Canada briefing note make it difficult to determine how much of that $400 million went unspent. The briefing note's closing lines indicate that, "a number of factors contributed to spending considerably below the $400M budget, and we have learned from these."

As far as Julian is concerned, it should have been a "no-brainer" to keep the popular program going.

"We're getting a clear indication that it was shut down prematurely. And at least from what they haven't censored, it's not clear why they shut it down. So you're left with the question, why did the government botch this?"

For Tim Weis, an energy specialist with the Pembina Institute, an environmental organization, the program's demise is indicative of a lack of a longer-term federal strategy to deal with energy conservation. He points out that though popular, the ecoEnergy retrofit program only reached about 10 per cent of homeowners in Canada. A longer-term strategy should have aimed much higher.

"How do you take a program like this and transition it into a long-term housing strategy? That was never put out there…. When the program ended, it just ended."