Power politics

Electricity rates keep going up, but the government refuses to help those who need it and isn't acting to prevent more rate increases.

Power bills are going up, but the poor aren't being supported. illustration Vincent Perez

Power rates are going up, but the increase is unnecessarily hurting poor people and the provincial government is actively opposing efforts to give relief to low-income residents, say consumer representatives and activists.

Moreover, three looming issues threaten to saddle ratepayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs.

Last week, the Utility and Review Board approved a 9.3 percent rate increase for Nova Scotia Power's residential customers, allowing the utility to pass on expected increases in the price of fuel---coal, mostly---for its generating plants.

"I can understand everyone's upset seeing rate increases," says John Merrick, the consumer advocate who testifies before the UARB. "But the reality is Nova Scotia Power has to pay those increased costs for fuel and if you're not allowed to recover those increased costs, what the hell do you do?"

While Merrick saw the logic in passing on fuel costs, he argued against the full increase NSP had sought for other costs, such as tree trimming along power lines and the employee pension program, so the 12.1 percent increase was reduced accordingly.

Merrick is supportive of a relief program for low-income ratepayers and argues for increasing access by lowering fees such as the reconnect fee charged to delinquent customers.

Claire McNeil of the Affordable Energy Coalition goes further. Her organization wants a low-income energy assistance program funded by a utility bill surcharge---$1 monthly for residential customers.

"We need to make sure that people aren't being excluded from an essential service," says McNeil.

Last year, the AEC proposed an energy assistance program modelled after similar programs found in 27 jurisdictions in the US. It would have four elements: a monthly credit for low-income users, an energy efficiency plan geared specifically for low-income residents, crisis intervention assistance for those burdened with unforeseen circumstances and an arrears management plan for those who fall behind on their bills.

That proposal, however, was shot down by the UARB, which argued that it didn't have jurisdiction to approve it. AEC appealed that decision to the court of appeals; a hearing is set for December 1.

"We didn't get any opposition from anyone in this, including Nova Scotia Power," says McNeil. "Our only opposition has been the Nova Scotia government---their lawyers will be arguing against it in court."

While lawyers haggle over giving assistance to the poor, other issues threaten to raise power rates still higher, says Merrick.

NSP announced it wants to convert its old plant on the Halifax waterfront into company headquarters, renting excess space to its parent company, Emera. But if NSP, not Emera, owns the building, then the $55 million cost of the building will be reflected in higher bills to NSPcustomers, rather than costs to Emera shareholders.

"If Emera wants to be a property developer and build wonderful new premises on Water Street---fill its boots," says Merrick. "But this is not the function of a utility that's funded by ratepayers."

Then there's the issue of how much of the power bill industrial users should pay compared to residential users.

"A number of the larger industrials have suggested to the UARB that it's time to take a look at the formula by which rate increases are apportioned. If the board decides to have that hearing, you're going to see fur and blood fly."

But costs of a new power plant---passed on to ratepayers---dwarf other potential costs. NSP says a plant will be needed in a few years unless energy efficiency programs are instituted. (Reductions in electrical demand realized through efficiency would cancel increases in demand caused by an expanding economy, making a new plant unnecessary.)

Last year, groups representing low-income residents, ratepayers, businesses and NSP itself agreed on a "Demand Side Management" plan to implement energy efficiency measures. The agreement, however, sits moribund as the legislature hasn't acted upon it.

"Everybody has recognized that the DSM has got to be implemented," says Merrick.

"I don't know why the legislature hasn't acted."

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