Jerad Wilson, a technician with Greenfoot Energy Solutions in Fredericton, works on a heat pumpSubmitted

New Brunswickers who are thinking of signing up for a free program to help lower their home heating costs should be prepared to wait a long time, thanks to a national labour crunch.

Mike Holland, the province’s energy minister, says the companies that have signed up to install the mini-split heat pump and air-cooling units are running at full capacity, and there’s no point in his Progressive Conservative government pumping even more funds into the program.

“Money won’t fix it,” Holland told the legislature’s standing committee on estimates and fiscal policy last week. “It would be great if we could invest everything we can, but the supplier network, with every fully qualified member, is working full tilt. So we couldn’t get any more done right now even if we did throw the money at it. Our contractor network is working at full steam.”

Since launching the enhanced energy savings program in October 2022, NB Power has completed 6,400 retrofits, either converting baseboard electric or oil-heated homes to the new devices that save energy.

The public utility plans on doing 6,200 more conversions this year.

Meant for homeowners with an annual combined gross household income under $70,000, the program is costing taxpayers a bundle.

Holland says by the end of the fiscal year March 31, 2025, the provincial and federal governments will have spent about $189 million providing the free devices, along with free insulation and crack filling for those 12,600 low-income households. That works out to a cost to taxpayers of $15,000 for each household that uses the program.

Meanwhile, up to 15,000 households are still on the waitlist, not to mention the tens of thousands more households that could qualify but haven’t signed up.

Sandy MacLeod said the problem wasn’t unique to New Brunswick.

The president and CEO of the nonprofit trade association HRAI, or the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada, told Brunswick News there’s a national shortage of H-VAC technicians.

He said there just aren’t enough workers to fulfill the demand.

“We shouldn’t be pushing for more installations because what happens, and we’ve already seen this in other parts of the country, is you end up with poor quality installations and low-income people with equipment that fails in a relatively short period,” MacLeod said. “They might find out all of a sudden, they have a $1,800 repair bill to fix equipment that just wasn’t installed properly in the first place.”

The executive said both the federal and provincial governments needed to properly plan how free heat pump programs are rolled out. By creating a sudden surge in demand, they’ve left the industry scrambling.

“The vast majority of Canadians only replace their heating and cooling when it breaks. So the system is built pretty much to handle that volume. Employers know what that looks like and base what they need on the previous year. What happens when you come with new incentive programs is they spike demand. It’s great to spike the demand curve but if you don’t actually move the supply curve – both equipment and installation – that’s where you run into these shortages.”

It also has implications for households that have already paid for and installed heat pumps. NB Power says of its 340,000 residential customers, about 130,000 have the devices, which require regular maintenance and repairs. With electricity prices going up – they rose 13.2 per cent Apri 1 in most of New Brunswick – demand for heat pumps keeps growing.

But addressing the labour shortage could take time. The workers who specialize in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems must complete a three- to five-year apprenticeship program or a combination of over five years of work experience and industry courses in refrigeration and air conditioning repair to be eligible for trade certification.

MacLeod recommended three changes to open the bottleneck.

In New Brunswick, his institute has already begun conversations with provincial government officials to create a new category of worker, for residential customers only, who could be trained in 18 months rather than five years, learning simpler requirements for easier installations. Ontario and Manitoba have already adopted the measure, whereas Nova Scotia recently rejected it.

“But it wouldn’t fix anything tomorrow. It would take two to three years to make any sort of difference. There really isn’t capacity in most of the country to simply double, triple, quadruple what’s required.”

Another piece of advice: Ottawa should change immigration to favour people in trades rather than office careerists.

“Historically the point system in Canada has benefited white-collar workers over blue-collar workers,” MacLeod said. “That’s got to change because the trade shortage doesn’t just exist for H-VAC technicians, it exists for electricians, plumbers, masons, you can name it, all the trades are suffering for people.”

Lastly, he said provincial governments should be running better public relations campaigns to encourage young people to go into trades and ensure enough seats are available in colleges to take in more applicants.

“For young people, male, female, whatever the demographic, it’s an amazing opportunity. An H-VAC technician, in most of the country, makes more than $120,000 a year. So there’s really good income to be had for young people to enter the trades, and provinces aren’t promoting it enough.”

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 15, 2024 at 09:07

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

Comments are Welcome - Leave a reply below - Posts are moderated