The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre is appealing a ruling of the BC utilities commission in late January that electricity rates designed to help low-income customers would be unlawful. The commission dismissed a major application by lawyers at BC PIAC for approval of a package of measures to assist the hundreds of thousands of BC men, women and children who are struggling to cope with the high and rising costs of electricity service from BC Hydro. The application was supported by BCSEA and Sierra Club BC.
The commission concluded that “low-income rates unsupported by an economic or cost of service justification are unjust, unreasonable and unduly discriminatory and are therefore not in accordance with sections 59 - 60 of the Utilities Commission Act.” In plain English, the commission ruled that giving low-income customers a break on their electricity rates would discriminate against non-low-income customers. BC PIAC has asked the commission to reconsider the decision, and it has applied to the BC Court of Appeal for permission to appeal.
BC PIAC argues that the commission erred in failing to give any weight to the public interest objective embodied in the Act. Further, BC PIAC argues that the commission erred in ignoring the socioeconomic evidence that low-income rates would not constitute undue discrimination.
The poverty lawyers had filed a large body of evidence from low-income customers, poverty advocates and expert witnesses on the relationship between BC Hydro’s electricity service and the needs of low-income customers and their families. More than 160,000 households served by BC Hydro are below the Statistics Canada Low Income Cut-Off (LICO). Many are families with children. From 2006 to 2018, BC Hydro rates will have increased by about 75%. Meanwhile, basic income assistance rates in the province have been more or less frozen since 2007. Disconnections for non-payment have gone up from less than 7,000 in 2011 to more than 30,000 in 2015. Ontario and Manitoba do have special provisions for low-income electricity customers.
Bill Andrews is legal counsel for BCSEA and SCBC in BC utilities commission proceedings.