"It feels like we won the lottery"

On a small acreage in Southwest Edmonton, the door to a brown bungalow is propped open for a crew of workers. They carry tools and equipment into the house as they prepare to replace an aging furnace, install new attic insulation, and help with additional upgrades to improve the home’s energy efficiency. The house, a wood-clad, single-family home, belongs to a quiet yet welcoming couple named Mr. and Mrs. Zheng.

As a pair of workers make their way down to the furnace room and another peeks into the attic, Mr. Zheng bustles from one task to the next. He tends to a sprawling yard and numerous gardens that can be spotted from the property’s gravel driveway.

Outside, a parked pickup truck is branded with the Home Upgrades Program's logo and printed text below, reading: are your energy bills weighing you down? The program, newly launched in Edmonton, is designed to help Albertans struggling to pay their bills reduce energy consumption by installing energy-saving measures and providing energy education free of charge. Mr. and Mrs. Zheng are the first Edmonton household to receive free home upgrades.

“They were so excited last night, they barely slept,” said their daughter, Nancy, who joined for the day to help with translation and to share the family’s story. “It feels like we won the lottery,” she kept saying during the installation appointment.

Mr. Zheng

Mr. and Mrs. Zheng emigrated from China seven years ago to live near Nancy and her family. They don’t speak English and instead nod in polite acknowledgment of the workers entering and exiting their home. It’s clear the family takes great pride in caring for their home, but it’s equally clear that the house itself is in dire need of upgrades to improve its energy efficiency (and therefore, reduce the energy bills and improve the comfort of the home). As an elderly couple dependent on seniors’ benefits, the Zheng’s energy bills represent a significant financial burden: 19% of their total income is spent on energy. In Canada, the median household energy burden is 3%, and when a household spends 6% or more of their income on energy, they are considered to be living in energy poverty1.

Between their limited income and disproportionate energy burden, paired with Chinese cultural norms, Nancy plays a significant role in her parents' life, helping financially and acting as a primary support system.

“We did [the windows] before and it is more than 10,000 dollars,” she explained. “Because this is a really old house, lots of things need renovations so I have to save money, you know, little by little.”

It’s easy to wonder why Nancy’s parents wound up purchasing the property to begin with. Without prompting, Nancy explains. “Because we are not like you guys, living here, growing up here, you know the houses better than me. When we bought this house, for me it was ‘oh, this yard is beautiful’ but for the house, you know, we never go to check the insulation and all this stuff,” said Nancy, explaining how homes in China are built differently and are often concrete builds (unlike Canada, where homes are often built using wood and are susceptible to different kinds of damage and deterioration).

Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that Nancy recently left a position where she’d worked as a research scientist for the past six years. The whole family now relies on her husband’s small cellphone repair business. Leaving her job wasn’t an easy decision; especially given the financial pressures she and her family are learning to navigate. However, with a daughter and a 13-year-old special needs son, Nancy has chosen to prioritize caring for her family on the home front. “It was hard for me to balance,” she explained, reflecting on the demands of full-time work, while caring for a child with autism. Nancy's in-laws also live with her, meaning she cares for four seniors, and two children, one of whom requires additional care. And much the way her parents rely on the property for gardening, so too does her son; it’s one of the few places where he feels relaxed, making it all the more important to keep the property in the family. Despite her family’s reduced income, Nancy is doing everything she can to keep her parents and their home afloat.

Mr. and Mrs. Zheng's daughter, Nancy, with Tim Harris, Construction Manager and Energy Assessor with the Home Upgrades Program

When Nancy began saving to replace her parents’ furnace, she couldn’t predict how long it would take to save the necessary funds, especially given her life’s circumstances. So, when she first heard about the Home Upgrades Program from an Empower Me mentor (Empower Me is a sister program to the Home Upgrades Program), she could barely believe the program was real, but applied all the same. Learning that her parents' home was eligible for upgrades relieved Nancy of at least one stressor, allowing her a little breathing room to save and get ahead.

“Low-income households and newcomers often experience compounding stressors as a result of unique barriers and challenges,” explains Yasmin Abraham, co-founder of Kambo Energy Group and the Home Upgrades Program. “We know we can’t fix everything for everyone, but if reducing energy bills and making homes more comfortable and safe relieves Albertan households of even one stressor, then we know the program is having immeasurable impact.”

In Alberta, approximately 1 in 5 households are struggling to pay their energy bills2. Inefficient heating systems, old appliances, and poor building conditions are often to blame, making well selected energy efficiency measures a proven and cost-effective solution to reducing energy bills. This is why the Home Upgrades Program offers free energy efficiency education and home upgrades to qualified families living in Calgary and Edmonton. The program also recognizes that every home is different, and therefore tailors its approach based on each household’s unique needs. Addressing energy poverty won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be solved through one program alone. But for families faced with difficult choices, such as to “heat or eat”, the Home Upgrades Program aims to make energy bills one less burden.

“This program, at least for my family, is really awesome,” she said near the end of the conversation. “Now you know just how meaningful [the program] is for me.”

  1. Rezaei, M. (2017). Power to the people : thinking (and rethinking) energy poverty in British Columbia, Canada (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0351974
  2. https://energypoverty.ca/statement_of_purpose.pdf