06/05/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario failing to live up to its energy conservation promises: watchdog

TORONTO - The governing Liberals have dropped the ball on energy conservation since it passed the Green Energy Act three years ago, Ontario's environmental watchdog said Tuesday.

The "bold new plan" the Liberals promised to deliver in 2009 has "given way to caution and timidity," leaving unfulfilled promises that are possibly years away from completion, commissioner Gord Miller said in the first instalment of his annual conservation report.

"They made these promises to the people, they put in place the legislation and they have ceased to deliver," he said.

The legislation paved the way for the province's shift towards renewable energy, but the government appears to have lost interest in meeting its conservation promises, he said.

Conservation is the cheapest form of energy and more important than developing wind and solar power, he said.

"We're so distracted by renewable energy," Miller said.

"The opportunity for our society in terms of saving money in being efficient is in conservation, especially with the incredible improvements in technology that have been made in recent years."

So far, the government has failed to follow through on several of its conservation commitments, he said. They include making energy audits mandatory before a home is sold, which appears to have been "quietly abandoned."

The Liberals must also live up to their promises to deliver the highest energy efficiency standards in North America for household appliances and require annual energy consumption reports for all government ministries, Miller said.

If he had to grade the Liberals on their progress on conservation, he'd have to give them an "incomplete," said the former professor.

But Ontario is a leader in conservation if you look at all its policies and programs, said Energy Minister Chris Bentley.

"If you focus on one or two areas, you will find areas where others might be doing more," he acknowledged.

The government has brought in 15 regulations on energy efficiency standards for 50 appliance product groups, and is reviewing a further 40 regulations, Bentley said. But mandatory energy audits in home sales aren't on the table right now.

It's "very challenging economically" and could burden homebuyers with extra costs, he said.

"The question is whether you require sellers — who are going to pass on the costs to buyers — to engage in that, or whether you make it an issue for the two parties who are involved in a negotiation around the purchase of a house," Bentley said.

The seller can still provide an audit and the buyer could always ask for one, he said.

"We are focused very much on the bottom line for consumers and decided not to proceed with that at this time."

Miller noted that since 2008, only 625 of 100,000 real estate listings in the Greater Toronto Area actually had energy efficiency information attached.

"So clearly the voluntary approach is not successful," he said.

Australia has a mandatory system and it's actually increased the value of energy-efficient homes, he said.

The government's failure to live up to their conservation commitments is costing consumers more, said NDP critic Peter Tabuns.

"I think they're so focused on making sure there's enough demand for the nuclear power plants that they want to build, that they don't actually have a great interest in reducing energy consumption in Ontario," he said. "That drives up our costs."

Saving money through conservation is a no-brainer, especially for a cash-strapped government, said Green party Leader Mike Schreiner.

"The cheapest and greenest kilowatt is the one we never use in the first place," he said.

"Conservation is all about saving money by saving energy, and why they don't make it a priority is beyond me. It makes no sense."

The Progressive Conservatives piled on, saying the Liberals would rather drive up energy costs with their costly foray into green energy than focus on conservation.

"Ontarians are doing their part to conserve energy each and every day, but their bills keep rising as a result of the Liberals' decision to implement its smart meter system, charge HST on home-heating bills and pay outrageous subsidies to develop wind and solar power," Tory environment critic Michael Harris said in a release.