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City Council moves forward with energy retrofit loan program for homeowners

GEERS program allows homeowners to apply for city-backed loans that will be paid back over time through property taxes
20160201 Guelph City Hall Sign KA

Guelph City Council gave a big and surprisingly unanimous boost to a proposed program that will see the city finance energy efficient retrofits for homeowners.

Called the Guelph Energy Efficiency Retrofit Strategy (GEERS), the program will allow homeowners to apply for retrofit loans through the city that would be paid back through property taxes over time.

The program has been in the pipeline for a couple of years as part of the city’s Community Energy Initiative and there were fears there would be attempts to kill it.

Some felt that was part of the possibility when city staff recommended in a report that a 20-home pilot project be put in place in 2018 that would focus only on solar-related retrofits.

“It adds fuel to the fire that this is just an attempt to kill the program,” councillor Mike Salisbury said of the narrow scope and recommendation it be shelved until 2018.

But after two hours of discussion and several well-informed and articulate delegations, council, led by a motion from councillor Cathy Downer, instead voted to move the project up to the 2017 budget process and considerably expand its size and scope.

A new staff report was ordered for October that will now look at increasing the number of participants in what is being termed staged implementation of the project, not a pilot project.

The new report will also look at making a variety of retrofits, not just solar-related ones.

Several delegates said a 20-home pilot project was not a big enough sample to properly evaluate the program.

“I’m excited to see Guelph move in this direction and show leadership,” provincial Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said, “but I don’t think 20 homes is going to provide us with the information we need to evaluate the program.”

Evan Ferrari, who heads up the Guelph non-profit environmental organization eMERGE, said he’d like to see at least 100 houses initially take part in GEERS and that allowing a single technology “sends the wrong message.”

Dennis Galon told council that GEERS should be implemented as soon as possible, “a full, staged implementation.”

Steve Dyck, president of Guelph Solar, said the interest rates offered by the city on the loans have to be lower than those people can get through a home line of credit at the bank.

Mayor Cam Guthrie and councillor Bob Bell both said that waiting another five months for a second report from staff was worth the wait to make sure the program moved forward correctly.

“I’m okay with pausing while we build this,” Guthrie said.

One addition to Downer’s motion came from councillor Dan Gibson, who asked that staff also come up with a revenue neutral model for GEERS.

Gibson and others expressed concern about the program ending up costing taxpayers money and said he didn’t want to see those that couldn’t afford retrofits to end up paying through their taxes for those that could.

The rejected 20-home pilot project had been budgeted at a cost of $500,000 to the city, with loans to homeowners to be recuperated over time with a low interest rate added on.

“One of my biggest concerns is that the city is becoming a bank … is that the role of municipal government?” Gibson asked.