Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Arts




Hunsberger, Carol


Energy poverty, or not having access to sufficient energy to meet one’s needs, is a serious problem in Canada and around the world. While the current literature on energy poverty largely focuses on the experiences of people utilizing energy services to stay warm during cold winter temperatures, little is known about experiences of energy poverty during summertime heat. This gap is especially urgent since current climate models suggest that cities are likely to experience extreme heat conditions more frequently in the future. This research investigates how people use energy services, such as air conditioning and fans, among other strategies to keep cool during hot summer temperatures. As seniors are considered a vulnerable population to health risks associated with extreme heat, the study focused on individuals over the age of 65. The intention of this research was to examine what constraints or enabling factors help explain variations in seniors’ use of energy services to keep cool. 27 semi-structured, qualitative interviews conducted in Ottawa, Ontario, explored how seniors cope with extreme heat during the summer and their ability to access the energy services they desire. A central conclusion is that seniors have varying perceptions of the threat of extreme heat events and its associated risks, primarily due to differences in personal health status and concern for others, privilege and socioeconomic status. Further, findings indicate that senior’s use of energy services intersected with issues of pre-existing health conditions, social isolation, and concerns about costs. This research recommends that specific strategies are created to improve communication on heat and health-related risks as well as initiatives and programs aimed at providing support to seniors during extreme heat events.

Summary for Lay Audience

As our climate changes, extreme heat events are becoming more frequent and intense, especially in urban landscapes where heat is often intensified. Extreme heat events, also referred to as heat waves, are periods when the air temperature is excessively hot, caused by changes in weather systems. These events can cause severe health problems and even death for humans. Certain groups of people are more vulnerable to these risks, especially senior citizens as they may have trouble regulating their body temperature because of pre-existing health conditions, and may face challenges in accessing preventative cooling strategies, such as air conditioning and electric fans. Not being able to access and afford energy that powers these cooling strategies is a reality that many people are familiar with. The experience of energy poverty, also referred to as precarious energy access, involves households struggling to meet their energy needs. In the context of extreme heat events, precarious energy access may lead to people not being able to keep their indoor living environment adequately cool, which may be dangerous. This thesis explores the relationship between extreme heat events and the experience of precarious energy access in Canada, and how this affects seniors’ (at least 65 years of age) ability to cope with the heat in an urban centre. From June to August of 2019 I conducted 27 in-depth interviews with seniors in Ottawa, Ontario to understand how seniors experience extreme heat events, to identify key differences in their ability to access energy, and to gather new insights that could potentially help protect communities from future extreme heat events. Key findings indicate that senior’s experiences with energy services are connected with issues of pre-existing health conditions, social isolation, and concerns about costs. This thesis provides recommendations to help improve communication on heat and health-related risks as well as for initiatives and programs that are aimed at providing specific support to seniors during extreme heat events.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.