A crisis fund that has helped keep the power on for 10,000 households struggling to pay BC Hydro bills will continue despite a BC Utilities Commission panel ruling that the program should end.
“We’ll have something before the end of May,” said Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s minister of energy, mines and low carbon innovation. “It will continue. We haven’t decided on a mechanism.”
Under BC Hydro’s Customer Crisis Fund program, which started in 2018 as a three-year pilot project, a household facing disconnection can apply for a grant if they can’t pay their bill due to a temporary financial crisis such as a job loss, unexpected medical expense or death in the family.
The utility covered the expense by charging all customers 25 cents a month, an amount that has since been reduced to 13 cents.
On May 7, the BCUC ruled the program should stop at the end of May when the pilot program is over since it didn’t save the utility money and therefore didn’t benefit all ratepayers.
“The CCF Pilot Program cannot be justified on an economic or cost-of-service basis,” the review panel found, though it acknowledged the broad public support for the program and recognized the positive impact on people who had received grants.
A BC Hydro spokesperson said that aside from the Customer Crisis Fund there are various interest-free, flexible payment options available. “We want to remind any customer that is struggling to pay their bill to reach out to our customer team,” Mora Scott said in an email.
BC Hydro knows the importance of the crisis fund and is working with the government on other ways to help customers in need, Scott said. “In the meantime, we encourage eligible customers to get their application in for the fund by May 31.”
Given the BCUC’s mandate, the ruling was predictable, said Dylan Heerema, the energy policy lead for Ecotrust Canada. “It’s a disappointing outcome, especially as we’re still in the midst of coming out of the COVID crisis and a lot of folks are still experiencing hardship and loss of business.”
While it’s important to keep rates low, the government also has goals around reducing poverty, meeting carbon emission reduction targets and pursuing electrification that BC Hydro can help meet, Heerema said.
“It’s really a question of should we give BC Hydro a bigger role in meeting those policy objectives and those social objectives,” he said. “My perspective would be that we should and we should evolve the way we have that relationship set up between the regulator and the utility so that they’re allowed to pursue more programs like the Customer Crisis Fund.”
Ralston said BC Hydro has an important role in meeting the provincial government’s economic development, affordability and climate goals, and one way or another the crisis fund will continue.
BC Hydro figures show that since 2018 the crisis fund has given out $4.1 million in grants to 10,900 people, he said. “It plays a vital role for people who get into a jam and need some help to get out of it.”
The government has three options for continuing the crisis fund, Ralston said. It could give direction to the BCUC to allow the program to continue, change the legislation to broaden the BCUC’s mandate or pay for the program itself with provincial government funds.
While there’s been some grumbling about the cost, including from BC Liberal energy critic Tom Shypitka, Ralston said the monthly charge to BC Hydro customers has been minimal. “I think it’s a reasonable cost…. You don’t get much for 13 cents these days.”