BCSEA and Sierra Club BC endorsed a package of measures designed to help low-income customers of BC Hydro, in a BC utilities commission proceeding in October. The two groups threw their weight behind the BC Old Age Pensioners Organization (BCOAPO) and other groups represented by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BC PIAC) who are asking the commission 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.
BC PIAC’s lawyers filed an unprecedented 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.
BCOAPO is asking the commission to approve a discount of up to $16 per month for qualifying low-income customers, a crisis intervention fund to stave off disconnections, less-onerous terms and conditions for low-income ratepayers, and expanded efficiency programs for low-income households. The bill discounts would be about $13 million per year, half of the eligible customers enrolled in the program.
BC Hydro argued that the commission has no legal jurisdiction to approve special rates for low-income customers. Hydro said that low-income rates would be “unduly discriminatory” and contrary to the Utilities Commission Act. While Ontario and Manitoba do have special provisions for low-income electricity customers, BC Hydro said the legislation in those provinces is different than in BC.
BCSEA-SCBC argued that the BC commission does have authority to approve low-income rates. Their argument was that the commission’s traditional role to protect the interests of ratepayers includes protecting the interests of low-income ratepayers. BCSEA and SCBC urged the commission to “grasp the nettle” – to state in its final decision that the commission does have a public interest mandate to recognize and take steps within its jurisdiction to address the burden of high and rising electricity rates on low-income customers.
The commission’s decision is under reserve. Hopefully it will be issued by the end of the year.
Bill Andrews is legal counsel for BCSEA and SCBC in BC utilities commission proceedings.