Both sides have filed their final arguments in a British Columbia Utilities Commission process that could see low-income customers receive a break on their BC Hydro bills.
“People with low incomes don’t have a lot of wiggle room in their budgets to deal with continuously increasing costs of essential services like electricity,” said Erin Pritchard, a staff lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
BC PIAC is representing seven seniors’ and anti-poverty groups to provide input to the commission on BC Hydro’s ongoing 2015 rate design application. “We hope the commission takes this important opportunity to address bill affordability for low-income customers,” Pritchard said.
In a 116-page submission, BC PIAC argues that the commission has the jurisdiction to order measures to help low-income BC Hydro customers and that there is a pressing need to do so.
The assistance is necessary for “low income ratepayers who are having increasing difficulty paying their electricity bills in an environment where electricity rates continue to rise while many people’s incomes have stagnated,” the written argument says.
“BC Hydro’s electricity rates have risen by 51 [per cent] over the last 11 years and are on track to increase by over 30 [per cent] in the next eight years,” it says. “Over the same period income assistance rates have only increased by $100 to a total of $610 per month (for a single person), and the province’s minimum wage has only increased by $2.85 per hour.”
Electricity is essential for survival, it says. “People can only pay their electricity bills at the expense of competing household necessities, such as food and medicine. As a result, low income BC Hydro ratepayers are having more difficulty than ever paying for electricity, which is an essential service provided by a monopoly public utility.”
The organization is asking for various measures, including an “essential services usage block” rate where low-income ratepayers would get a discount of four cents per kilowatt hour for the first 400 kilowatt hours of electricity they use each month, Pritchard said.
They also want a crisis intervention fund for low-income ratepayers facing disconnection and charges including those for late payment, reconnection and security deposits to be waived for customers with low incomes.
Part of BC Hydro’s written 413-page final argument addresses the push to make electricity more affordable. It argues that the Crown corporation is already taking various measures, including allowing equal payment plans, pay-as-you-go security deposits, instalment plans and payment deferrals.
The utility will also begin taking a customer’s health into consideration before it disconnects their power, it says. “BC Hydro is implementing changes that will allow a customer to delay a disconnection where they are able to demonstrate a medical reason for requiring power.”
It is also starting a pilot project that would prevent disconnections during the winter in some areas and is planning to establish a low-income advisory group, it says.
BC Hydro also argues that the utilities commission lacks the authority under the Utilities Commission Act to order different rates for low-income customers. “In BC Hydro’s submission, nothing in the [act] confers on the Commission the power to set rates based on income level. Moreover, the analysis and evidence support the proposition that the legislation has not intended the Commission to have that power.”
Despite the bounds of the system for setting rates, the BC PIAC proposal is “outstanding,” said NDP BC Hydro critic Adrian Dix.
Many people in the province struggle to afford BC Hydro payments and have to choose between heating their homes and buying food, Dix said. He also noted that the number of people being disconnected has spiked following the introduction of smart meters.
“Nothing’s been done to deal with the fundamental problem,” said Dix. The Liberal government’s policies have been driving BC Hydro rates upwards at a time when the cost of everything is increasing, causing a growing number of people to have trouble paying their bills, he said.
The current rate design application is the third in 35 years and the first since 2007, Pritchard said. Further filings are due October 11 and 24 and a decision from the utilities commission may not come until early in 2017, she said.
“We are pleased with the openness and transparency of the process around the rate design application and the opportunity it has provided for stakeholder engagement and customer feedback,” said BC Hydro spokesperson Simi Heer in an email.
BC Hydro is already taking steps to address some of the issues raised by BC PIAC and others in the process, Heer said. Those steps include reducing the reconnection fee from $125 to $30, delaying disconnections for customers who demonstrate they have a medical reason for needing power, and asking the utilities commission to make it possible for a customer to take responsibility for another customers account, she said.
BC Hydro will file a further response to the low-income rate proposals next week, said Heer. “BC Hydro continues to maintain our commitment to conservation programs for low-income customers,” she said. “We’re investing $7.8 million in low-income programs over the next three years. We want to make it easier for British Columbians — especially low-income families — to find energy efficiencies and save on their electricity.”