No Help at This Rate: Seeking Relief for Low Income Ratepayers as BC Hydro Redesigns Its Rates

By: 

Erin Pritchard, BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC)

In late September 2015, BC Hydro filed a “Rate Design Application” with the BC Utilities Commission. In this process, the BCUC, BC Hydro and stakeholders will review rate structures and terms and conditions of service for residential, business and industrial customers.
 
Why is BC Hydro’s rate design application important?
BC Hydro residential electricity rates have increased by 47% in the last 10 years, and will likely increase by another 10.5% in the next three years. Rates are projected to continue to rise significantly in future years as the government continues to order BC Hydro to build multi-billion dollar projects like the Site C dam without a full public review of those projects by the Commission.

Unfortunately, increases in BC Hydro’s electricity rates have far outpaced increases in provincial income and disability assistance rates and the BC general minimum wage over the same time period. People living in poverty have a hard time paying for essential services such as electricity when their incomes are stagnant. Since electricity is essential to survival, energy bills can only be paid at the expense of competing household necessities, such as food and medicine.

BC Hydro currently offers no rates or terms and conditions that specifically apply to low income customers. The only programs available to these customers are a few energy saving products, and in more limited cases, energy efficiency home upgrades.

In the rate design application, BCPIAC will ask the Commission to implement rate relief, emergency bill assistance, and terms and conditions for low income BC Hydro ratepayers.
 
What is BCPIAC’s role in this proceeding?
The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is a small non-profit law firm in Vancouver. Since 1982, we have represented the interests of low and fixed income residential energy customers in proceedings at the Commission. Rather than representing individuals, BCPIAC represents organizations across BC whose members are low and fixed income customers, like seniors’ organizations and anti-poverty groups (including TAPS).  BCPIAC intervenes in proceedings where BC Hydro and other utilities want Commission approval to construct new projects or to increase the amount they are allowed to charge customers for service.  
 
What is our goal in this proceeding?
In this proceeding, BCPIAC will ask the Commission to order that BC Hydro:

♦ Implement a “lifeline rate” for low income BC Hydro residential customers, so that these customers can get basic electricity at a reduced price;
♦ introduce a low income emergency bill assistance program of up to $500/ year for low income households (this would be like a crisis grant, not intended to address ongoing bill affordability issues); and
♦ adopt terms and conditions for service that would apply to low income ratepayers, including policies that would allow:

  • waiver of security deposits and the ability to build up a security balance over time (6 months),
  • flexible payment arrangements, including modifications to the equal payment plan program,
  • elimination of late payment fees,
  • suspension of electricity service disconnections during cold weather periods and for customers using lifesaving medical equipment, and
  • waiver reconnection fees.

Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba offer bill assistance programs to low income electricity customers who are having difficulty paying their bills, and both Ontario and Manitoba are expanding these programs.

We will argue that the Commission has the ability to implement programs to assist low income BC Hydro ratepayers, and that in the face of significant rate hikes, doing so is in the public interest.
 
How you can help!
As part of the rate design proceeding, we will be putting forward evidence from residential ratepayers about difficulties that low income people are having paying their electricity bills as a result of BC Hydro’s rate increases. If you have been disconnected by BC Hydro because you were unable to pay your bill, and were not eligible for a crisis supplement though the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation to pay your bill, please contact your TAPS advocate, or contact BCPIAC at 604-687-3063 or support@bcpiac.com.