Haltingly executed moves to update the City of Yellowknife's energy efficiency standards have created a rift between councillors and left at least one volunteer involved furious.
Federal standards relating to energy efficiency are changing, so councillors have been working to update the city's building bylaw accordingly. Developers building new homes are guided by the bylaw, which currently sets a minimum standard for energy efficiency – though does not strictly enforce it.
Last Monday, after weeks of delay, councillors Adrian Bell and Niels Konge successfully moved to drop the current standards entirely – directly contradicting written recommendations from council's own community energy planning committee, which advised council to keep those standards in the bylaw until the new federal standard can be put in place.
Bell and Konge did so in the absence of Shauna Morgan, the councillor who chairs that committee. Mayor Mark Heyck was also absent, with Bell chairing as his deputy. Councillor Linda Bussey, attending by phone, dropped off the call during the discussion, leaving only two-thirds of council present for the vote.
The vote went ahead despite one councillor, Julian Morse, urging colleagues to wait for committee chair Morgan to return, and another – Rebecca Alty – proposing an alternative date.
Konge, who owns a construction company, wants to move to a system of incentives for developers instead.
He argues the matter was urgent as construction season is under way and developers should not be asked to work to a standard being phased out at the federal level, though support for the standard is guaranteed until at least the end of 2019.
Further, he said, the community energy planning committee "does not have proper representation for this issue" as no building industry members sit on it.
But one volunteer member of the expert committee, Dwayne Wohlgemuth, called the vote to drop Yellowknife's current energy efficiency standards an "uninformed, rapid decision based on false information."
Wohlgemuth added: "Shame on all the city councillors present. A disappointing moment for democracy in Yellowknife."
'Absolutely no concern'
Following the vote, councillors openly criticized their colleagues' actions in interviews with Cabin Radio.
"I believe valid questions could be raised about potential conflicts of interest," said Morgan of Konge, who advocated for an incentive-driven program and whose company would be one of the beneficiaries should such a program come to pass.
Both Konge and Bell rejected any conflict of interest on the grounds of community of interest, a theory explained to councillors by the City's legal team when they begin their terms in office, which allow councillors to take part in a discussion if their interests align with an entire sector or community, not just their own personal or business dealings.
"I see absolutely no concern there. It’s a community of interest. We’ve had that explained to us very clearly," said Bell of Konge leading a discussion on the building bylaw as a construction company owner.
"It's either that or we vote for a whole bunch of people who have no interest in anything. I believe this falls pretty directly under community of interest," said Konge.
In turn, Bell and Konge both said they had expected Morgan to take part in last Monday's council meeting by phone, saying she had held up discussion of energy efficiency standards on at least two occasions through her absence. Morgan says she was on vacation and travelling back to Yellowknife at the time of last Monday's meeting.
"We tried to take it off the table the week before, and the chair of that committee wasn’t at council, so we postponed it yet another week," said Konge. "She was going to phone in, but she didn’t. At some point, people need to start making decisions – not based on who might be coming into the room, but based on the needs of the people we’re providing service to."
Morgan disputes this account, saying: "I can't think of any possible occasions before May 28 where they could have tried to discuss it at a council meeting and decided not to because I wasn't there."
In Morgan's absence, Konge passed a motion by which the City would strip all energy efficiency standards out of the building bylaw but instead require that new residential buildings receive an evaluation, delivered to prospective owners ahead of purchase.
That motion still needs its third reading before anything is confirmed – though motions rarely receive any further debate at that time.
Morgan told Cabin Radio she is not convinced the average homebuyer has the technical understanding to make an informed decision based on those evaluations.
"I don’t think it will work to leave this particular issue to the market. I think it’s unrealistic to expect the average homebuyer to be an expert in energy efficiency standards," she said.
"People tend to be driven by the price tag up front. If they can buy a cheaper home up front, people will often jump at that opportunity without considering how much extra money in heating bills it’s going to cost them, even from day one."
Dropping the old energy efficiency standards and moving to an evaluation system runs contrary to the community energy planning committee's recommendations.
The committee said councillors should keep the standards as-is until the new standards can be incorporated, to be achieved through a series of working groups.
Morgan expressed surprise at councillors electing to entirely ignore an advisory's committee's recommendations.
"I don’t actually remember a case during my term when the recommendation of an advisory committee hasn’t been followed," she said. "Certainly, council isn’t obliged to follow every recommendation it gets, but at the very least I feel it has to acknowledge it – and if it disagrees, councillors have to state on what basis they disagree. In this case, the recommendation was not even acknowledged."
Konge contends the minimum standards do not work in practice as they do not come with any enforceable penalty, meaning some homes in Yellowknife are built below the minimum standard at no consequence to the developer. Konge admitted his own company had, on several occasions, missed that standard itself.
But Morgan says evidence provided by the Arctic Energy Alliance, which supports energy efficiency efforts in the territory, shows the minimum standards have had a demonstrable impact.
"From research done by Arctic Energy Alliance, since this minimum regulated standard was put in place in Yellowknife, there has been a significant shift across the board in terms of the level of energy efficiency of new homes," she said.
"It’s true that not all new homes are meeting the minimum standard but even the worst homes being built now are much better than the worst homes being built before this standard."
A 2015 Arctic Energy Alliance study suggested owners of 91 homes built from 2010 to 2015, after the current energy efficiency standard was introduced, had saved a collective $272,000 a year in part thanks to that measure being in place.
"The committee felt strongly that we shouldn’t be going backwards on this issue," said Morgan. "The City needs to be on the front end of best practices, nationally, and that is explicitly in our community energy plan approved by council: that the City commits to continuing to push the envelope and pursue higher and better energy efficiency standards."
Both Bell and Konge said updating the City's energy efficiency standards should have happened years ago, with Konge saying administrators never brought forward any relevant information to councillors. An upgraded federal standard has been in place since 2015.
In the longer term, Konge is proposing an incentive system whereby the cost of building permits increases from $5,000 to $10,000, but developers receive a $5,000 rebate if a home meets a new minimum standard. However, Morgan is concerned introducing such a program could take years and leave prospective buyers reliant on an evaluation system with no minimum standard in the interim.
Councillors will have an opportunity to reopen discussion of the building bylaw at its third reading, scheduled for June 25.