Before my time at TAPS, I did not know that BC Hydro could cut a family’s electricity off in the middle of the winter, making them unable to heat their home, even if that family simply could not afford to pay their bill. I did not know that someone with an annual income of a million dollars pays the same amount per kilowatt of energy as someone with an annual income of $10,000. Our hydro rates are a flat tax. In a province as deeply unequal as BC, a flat tax is a regressive tax, plain and simple.
If you are poor, you know that the never-ending increases to your hydro bill have far outpaced increases to income, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
About once every 10 years BC Hydro goes through a process to review its rate structures—that is, the way it charges its roughly 1.9 million customers across the province for service. As part of this process, BC Hydro brings a “Rate Design Application” before a hearing at the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC), and the BCUC then determines whether or not to accept BC Hydro’s proposal.
I was at the BCUC hearings in Vancouver in early September as part of TAPS’ efforts to affect how hydro rates go up and for whom. TAPS is part of a coalition of organizations working with people living in poverty, including anti-poverty, tenancy, and seniors’ organizations. We are collectively referred to as BC Old Age Pensioners’ Organization (BCOAPO) et al., which is the name of one of the organizations in our coalition—not the best title for an inspired collective of social justice warriors seeking energy justice, but it serves the day.
BCOAPO has talented and passionate legal counsel in Sarah Khan and Erin Pritchard (former TAPS advocate), both of the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC). They are acting with the support and guidance of case manager, past BCUC Commissioner, and faithful TAPS Treasurer Tony Pullman, as well as two expert consultants. There are many other parties that support our effort and our thanks go out to them. Special mention goes to Leigha Worth of MoveUP (Movement of United Professionals) for making the case on behalf of their membership for more affordable rate policies for low-income families.
Our coalition’s requests to the BCUC include the following:
- introduce a rate discount for people living in poverty;
- put in place low-income customer rules like waiving reconnection fees and security deposits, and allowing flexible repayment plans for bill arrears;
- set up a crisis intervention fund for customers facing disconnection;
- end hydro disconnections in the coldest months of winter.
These programs would be available to all BC Hydro customers falling under a certain income threshold. The requests are reasonable, and detailed evidence compiled by the team at BCPIAC shows that, if these proposals were followed, there would be a modest but important betterment of the conditions faced by people living in poverty in super-unequal BC, at a cost of about a single dollar (or half a cup of coffee) per month for BC Hydro rate payers who are not poor.
On the day I was there, the BCUC hearing room seemed to be filled with people far removed from the realities of poverty. We heard expert testimony from Seth Klein, Director of the BC office of the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives. He eloquently presented the case: People living in poverty in BC have “negative wiggle room” in their monthly budgets; energy poverty is real and this is an opportunity to do something about it.
I left the hearing early. I needed to escape for a short walk. It was then that I ran into Chris, who hangs out in Oppenheimer Park and lives in a nearby one-bedroom apartment. I learned that Chris pays $850 a month for a “coffin” (his word, not mine) and pays roughly $30 every two months for hydro. It did not sound like a lot until I learned he is living on PWD, the provincial disability benefit. On months where the hydro bill comes due, after paying the bill and rent, he has $26.42 to pay for everything else.
The night before attending the BCUC, I’d headed to Commercial Drive and found a local spot to take in a pint. As you do, I got talking to a stranger about energy poverty in BC. He was a homeowner living near the “Drive” and was a self-styled “job creator”. He was not generally someone I would have expected to be sympathetic to the noble cause of BCOAPO et al. I was wrong.
When I explained our requests, he came to the same common sense conclusion: It was well past time to make the changes we are calling for. I pushed him a little bit on his feelings around poverty in general, and I would not describe him as sympathetic to the plight of the poor. However, very little explanation was required to convince him of the merits of BCOAPA et al.’s requests.
I know my anecdotal account from a stranger in a bar and Chris at Oppenheimer Park will in no way affect the BCUC’s decision on alleviating energy poverty for some of BC Hydro’s most vulnerable ratepayers. I wish it did, as the solution is something I feel we can all agree on, rich and poor.
While I have no clear idea of where the BCUC will land on our proposals, our coalition has brought an aggressive and meaningful proposal to the table. It will be months before we hear the BCUC’s final decision, but thanks to some incredible efforts it could be good news. Once we know the outcome, so will you. Until then, I want to again acknowledge the incredible work of the team at BCPIAC. Your passion in bringing this fight is fuel for the fire.