Ottawa Food Bank: does cold weather + high electricity prices = new clients?

The Ottawa Community Food Bank’s client list is doing what I and my fellow consultants always wish our client lists were doing more of: growing. I doubt the OCFB is happy like I am when my client list grows by even one. Nor should it be. A burgeoning OCFB client list means things are not good in the community. The OCFB recently published a report saying its client list has grown 5.6 percent over the past year. Why has it grown?

On page 2, the report says:

Poverty has no single cause. Its roots are many, including insufficient income sources, the lack of affordable housing, the rise in precarious employment, and increasing utility costs.

It’s the latter—utility costs—that I want to talk about.

Ottawa, as I wrote this (seven-thirty a.m. on December 13 2017), was a bit on the cold side: minus 24°C with the windchill. How much heat energy was trying to get from inside Ottawa’s 371,000 private dwellings to the outside? By my calculation, over 5.2 kilowatts for each household. That’s 5,200 joules every second, going in one direction—from inside, where it was at least 18.3°C, to outside, where it was minus 24. To maintain an indoor temperature of 18.3°C, some heat source must have put on average 5,2 kilowatts into each indoor system.1

Fig 1. Ottawa space-heating watts required per private dwelling, December 13 2017

Total kWh space heat required per household: 117.9 for the day. This heat demand curve is a big deal if you heat with electricity, not such a big deal if you heat with gas.

It matters hugely to each household’s economy how those 5.2 kilowatts are getting into the household. If they are getting there by way of burning natural gas, then over one hour it will cost less than 19 cents. If with Hydro Ottawa electricity, it will cost $1.13. This is because gas and electricity each come with the following per kilowatt-hour cost:

  • Gas: $0.035.
  • Electricity: $0.218.

The cost of heating that average private dwelling in Ottawa on December 13 was, for the whole day:

  • Gas: $4.13.
  • Electricity: $25.70.

If this cold snap goes like this for a few more days, it could cost those who heat with electricity upwards of $100 just for heating. Cold snaps are expensive when you heat with Ontario electricity.

How can we in Ontario reduce the cost of electricity, so that those of our neighbours who are in the unfortunate position of being OCFB clients are not in such desperate straits trying to stay warm just before Christmas? How about starting with rescinding the solar contracts enabled by the Green Energy Act.

For those people who use the Ottawa Community Food Bank, cold snaps must be just brutal. Not only are they more likely to live in sub-standard housing—and how many sub-standard homes are properly insulated from the cold—but their homes are more likely to be electric heated. This will leave much less money at the end of the month. Because, you have to stay warm when it’s minus 24 outside.

Hence the OCFB’s growing client list.

The kicker is, OCFB clients who heat with electricity are far far more green than their better-off fellow Ottawans.

This is because gas and electric heating each come with the following per kilowatt-hour carbon dioxide (CO2) content:

  • Gas: 200 grams.1
  • Electricity: 35 grams.2

Fig 2. CIPK of Ontario grid electricity and natural gas heating (high efficiency), December 13 2017

This means the amount of CO2 from space heating that was dumped into the atmosphere from private dwellings in Ottawa yesterday differed significantly, depending on how homes were heated.

  • Gas heating: 23.6 kilograms. Bear in mind this assumes a private dwelling of very small size.
  • Electric heating: 4.1 kilograms.

Effectively, people who heat with electricity, i.e. more cleanly, were forced to pay more because of it. That may include OCFB clients, who likely and understandably care less about their CO2 footprint than about how financially painful their next electricity bill is going to be.

Is it possible that low income Hydro Ottawa customers accounted for a significant part of the 15,540 kilowatt difference between Ottawa’s 2016 winter peak electrical delivery and average peak delivery? Here are Ottawa’s electrical peaks as reported by Hydro Ottawa to the OEB3:

  • Winter Peak (kW): 1,193,901
  • Summer Peak (kW): 1,391,443
  • Average Peak (kW): 1,178,361

With such a small difference between average peak and winter peak, and with Ottawa renowned for its cold winters, I think it is safe to say that most heating in this city is provided by something other than electricity. Because here are my estimates for total household heating demand in Ottawa for December 13th (which I will remind you was fairly cold):

  • Peak heat demand (kW): 2,050,557
  • Average heat demand (kW): 1,826,832

The difference between Hydro Ottawa’s winter and average peak electrical delivery—15,400 kW—amounts to 0.85 percent of Ottawa’s (estimated, by me) 1.82 million kW of average heat demand for Dec. 13, and 0.76 percent of the 2.05 million kW peak head demand. Unless my numbers are just totally wrong, and I don’t think they are, almost all heating in Ottawa is produced by burning stuff.

I’ll just assume that 99 percent of private dwellings in Ottawa are heated with gas.

On this basis, I estimate that households in Ottawa, which likely met a total heating demand of over 43 million kWh on December 134, will eventually collectively pay something in the order of $1.61 million for heat.

The vast bulk of this $1.61 million will be for natural gas, the predominant heating fuel. But I estimate that more than $95,000 will be for over 438,000 kWh of electric heating (at roughly 21.8 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity in Ottawa, based on my own residential bills).

How much of this $95,000 will be paid by OCFB clients, who because they are OCFB clients are strapped for money will struggle to make their payments?

I ask this question because at this time of the year, with heat demand what it is, I think we in Ontario need to keep looking for ways to reduce electricity bills. The Ontario government, for all its crowing about its Fair Hydro Plan, has caused the electricity price increases, through its Green Energy Act. The GEA pays enormous rates for solar, which in 16 of the 24 hours of December 13 was perfectly useless, producing exactly zero kilowatt-hours of green energy.

Producers of solar power get the enormous rates—in some cases 80 cents per kilowatt hour—precisely because of their dismal capacity factors: if they received less, they would not have installed solar panels in the first place. In effect, the government makes Ontario ratepayers, including OCFB clients, pay solar producers the high rates so as to make it worth solar producers’ while to install solar panels.

I bet there isn’t a single OCFB client who is a participant in the solar FIT program. And why am I so confident I would win such a bet? Because most OCFB clients are renters, not owners. FIT is a two-tier economy. It’s for property owners. The renter’s role is that she gets to pay for the property owner’s second stream of income.

And I bet there isn’t a single FIT participant in Ottawa who heats his home with electricity. Why am I so confident I’d win that bet? Because electricity is so damn expensive. Mostly due to the FIT program. I bet most solar FIT participants heat with gas, or something else that you burn to get the heat out.

The government bought votes from this crowd, using money gouged from electricity ratepayers under the pretext of green energy that the FIT participants themselves wouldn’t use because it is too expensive.

How can we in Ontario reduce the cost of electricity, so that those of our neighbors who are in the unfortunate position of being OCFB clients are not in such desperate straits just before Christmas?

How about starting with rescinding the solar contracts enabled by the GEA.

  1. This assumes a high efficiency gas burning furnace
  2. This is the average CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour (CIPK) of Ontario grid electricity on December 13. For CIPK each hour, see Fig.2.
  3. OEB 2016 Yearbook of Electricity Distributors, General tab of the spreadsheet.
  4. I say likely because I simply do not know if all of Ottawa’s 371,791 private dwellings maintained an indoor temperature of at least 18.3°C on December 13. I am assuming they did.

5 comments for “Ottawa Food Bank: does cold weather + high electricity prices = new clients?

  1. Jaro
    December 16, 2017 at 06:44

    Brilliant article Steve. Thanks !

  2. Jaro
    December 16, 2017 at 06:58

    Steve, would you happen to know how much of this might be going on in Ottawa and Ontario in general ?

    ” Woodland Heists — Rising Energy Costs Drive Up Forest Thievery ”

    • December 16, 2017 at 10:13

      Good question. I wonder if there’s just a general uptick in people living off the land — either wildlife poaching (better to hunt than use the food bank) or whatever not-necessarily-legal income-generating activity they can scare up.

  3. Ike Bottema
    December 16, 2017 at 11:39

    How about starting with rescinding the solar contracts enabled by the GEA.

    Hear, hear! That should have been done long ago.

  4. December 17, 2017 at 21:54

    Great summation pointing out the fallacies of the GEA and the FIT & MicroFIT programs and pricing of those programs. The other issue worth mentioning is related to the fact that the impact on the people (generally volunteers) preparing the meals are interestingly using the same energy to prepare those meals and their costs have risen also due to the price of electricity. The multiplier effect means they who are the charities giving back have seen their contributed costs rise due to the GEA or have cut back on the number of meals they can provide.

    Seems strange that if you can afford to purchase a Tesla
    Automobile costing $150K the government will hand you a rebate of $15K and throw in another $1K for a battery charger. Imagine how many meals that could provide?

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