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TAPS Asks for Energy Justice In Super Unequal BC

I am back at my desk this week after a trip to the big city across the pond. I found myself there as part of TAPS’ struggle to change years of needless energy poverty for low income BC Hydro ratepayers across this province.

The purpose of my trip was to witness, as a representative of TAPS, the process that BC Hydro goes through to  review its rate structures —that is, the way it charges its roughly 1.9 million customers across the province for service.  About once every 10 years BC Hydro brings a “Rate Design Application” before the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC), which then determines whether or not to accept their proposal. Unsurprisingly, BC Hydro  plans to continue to increase the cost of your monthly bill – increases that would normally have to be approved by the BCUC, but have instead been mandated by the BC government. This process also presents a rare opportunity to try forcing change in the struggle against energy poverty, something increasingly difficult in the lives of low income people in super unequal BC. TAPS’ purpose in being there was to try  to affect how the rates go up and for whom.

In this proceeding, TAPS is a part of a coalition of organizations working with people living in poverty, including anti-poverty, tenancy, and seniors’ organizations. We are collectively, and unceremoniously, referred to in shorthand 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.

We have incredibly gifted and passionate legal counsel in Sarah Khan and Erin Pritchard (former TAPS Advocate), both of the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre. 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 combined effort and our thanks goes out to them. Special mention goes to Leigha Worth of MoveUP, for making the case on behalf of the union’s membership to see more affordable rate policies in place 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, and ending hydro disconnections in the coldest months of winter.  These programs would be available to all BC Hydro customers falling under a certain income threshold. What we ask for would cost about a single $1 (or half a cup of coffee) per month for BC Hydro rate payers who are not poor. The asks are reasonable, grounded in logic, and well supported by the detailed evidence compiled by the team at BCPIAC.

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. This is why we are here.

Despite the logic, as I entered the hearing room it immediately felt strange that I was there. This is a room, apart from a few friendlies, apparently filled with people far removed from the realities of poverty. The day I attended started with 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 remain convinced that our  requests are based in common sense. A modest but important betterment of the conditions faced by people living in poverty in super unequal BC . The case for our proposals could not be made more clearly.

It is important to note that the Government of British Columbia deprived this very Commission the opportunity to review the case for building Site C dam before initiating this financial and ecological boondoggle; a project which proceeds apace with neither the consent of indigenous peoples nor a  proper cost and need justification for its very existence. I guess if you are throwing the roughly estimated $9 billion in costs associated with this blunder out with the bathwater, it could be harder to eliminate energy poverty. I can’t help but wish this was a topic that could fit into this hearing. But the powers that be have ensured this is a project  the BCUC will not be putting under its finely tuned microscope, despite that BC Hydro customers, including those with very low incomes, will likely be required to pay for Site C.

Site C aside, it offends me that we need to even make this ask. We are proposing common sense changes that should have been in place long ago. Had they been previously instituted, a great deal of hardship could have been avoided. 

Before my time at TAPS I simply did not know that BC Hydro could stop people from heating their homes in the winter months, even if that family simply cannot afford to pay their bill. 

I did not know that a family with an annual income of $1 million pays the same amount per kilowatt of energy that a family with an annual income of $10,000 does. 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. 

The hearing continues into this week. And while I have no clear idea of where the BCUC will land on our proposals, I feel grateful that our coalition has brought an aggressive and meaningful proposal to the table. Once we know the outcome, so will you.

I left the hearing early. I needed to escape for a short walk. It was then that I ran into Chris. He hangs out in Oppenheimer Park and lives in a nearby one bedroom apartment. I learn that Chris pays $850 a month for a “coffin”. His words not mine. I asked him if he had a hydro bill. He tells me he pays roughly $30 every two months. It does not sound like a lot until I learn he is living on PWD. 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 headed to Commercial Drive and found a local spot to take in a pint while waiting for my host, Erin, to finish prepping for the next day’s hearing. As you do, I got talking to a stranger about energy poverty in BC. He is a homeowner living near the “Drive” and is a self-styled job creator. He is 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 asks, 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 a sympathetic voice to the plight of the poor. However, very little explanation was required to convince him of the merits behind the quest of BCOAPO et al.

I know my anecdotal account from a stranger in a bar and Chris at Oppenheimer will in no way affect the BCUC’s decision on alleviating the consequences of energy poverty for some of BC Hydro’s most vulnerable ratepayers. I wish it did, as the solution is something I feel like we can all agree on, rich and poor.

It will be months before we hear the BCUC’s final decision but thanks to some incredible efforts it could be good news. Until then, and in closing, I want to again acknowledge the incredible work of the team at BCPIAC. Your passion in bringing this fight is fuel for the fire.

With anticipation for change,

Stephen Portman, Advocacy Lead, TAPS

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