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Rising power bills hurt low-income Nova Scotians most

Ecology Action Centre report proposes rate relief, energy efficiency measures

by Robert Devet

Rising power bills are a real problem for low income Nova Scotians.  An EAC proposal aims to change that. Photo by Bert Kaufmann
Rising power bills are a real problem for low income Nova Scotians. An EAC proposal aims to change that. Photo by Bert Kaufmann

"Based on our work with low income families, Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank believes that the cost of electricity service is growing more and more difficult for low income people to meet. The interest rates and reconnection charges add heavily to this burden and are too high for people on assistance or for people making minimum wage to afford."

"There are many families in extreme poverty, who experience terrible hardship because they do not have sufficient resources to pay their NSPI bills. They go without lights, heat, hot water, cooking facilities, refrigeration and other essentials because they cannot access the financial assistance they need."

– Mel Boutilier, Executive Director of the Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank and Employment Services, in 2012 testimony before the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.

 

Rising power bills affect lower-income Nova Scotians the most, but a report issued by the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) in early August aims to tackle that.

The report reconsiders the focus on rising power bills whenever energy is discussed in the press or debated among politicians. It's not the power bills as such that are the issue, it's the cost of power in the context of your ability to pay.

In other words, it's affordability.

"We think that rising power bills are a very real issue for low income people, but for most people rising power rates don't create that kind of problem," says Brian Gifford, author of the report.

"We are saying that to the extent that rising power rates are necessary because coal prices are going up, because with climate change we got to move to renewable energy, [...] what we need to do is focus on the people who are really hurt by those power rates. ... Everybody needs to pay more but some people can afford afford it a lot more easily than others."

The report's main recommendation is to offer rate relief for those people who need it most.

Similar to earlier proposals by the Affordable Energy Coalition, the idea is that government subsidizes low-income households to bring their energy costs down to three per cent of their income (or six per cent if they heat with electricity).

When these percentages are exceeded, people are often forced to choose between essentials – between paying the power bill or buying medications for a sick child.

The report also recommends energy efficiency measures for low-income households.

For example, Efficiency Nova Scotia, which helps consumers save energy through education and technical and financial assistance, should target low-income households more aggressively, whether they are renters or home owners.

"It doesn't make sense to just focus on the rising rates, it makes sense to focus on what people actually pay as a result of those rising rates, combined with any efficiency measures that they take," says Gifford.

"This is a perfect combination of policy that addresses both the issues of affordability and also environmental impact."

The report goes on to make recommendations for helping those who fall behind on paying their power bills.

There is little funding available to help those families and individuals who see their power cut off for this reason. Excessive reconnect charges, aggressive debt collection methods, and little empathy from Nova Scotia Power have just made matters worse.

In the proposed approach each time a bi-monthly bill is paid, a portion of the accumulated debt is forgiven. The proposed approach goes well beyond the latest proposals by Nova Scotia Power.

"This proposal is modelled on the American system. Very often people who are on a low income get into trouble with arrears," says Gifford. "And when they come into this [new] program so that they can actually afford the costs, if they come into it with arrears then they could still be in trouble."

All of these recommendations will cost money.

The report suggests two options to pay for the new programs. The first, and the option the EAC prefers, is to add a small charge, something like $0.80 per month for individual rate payers, to everybody's power bill.

Alternatively, the EAC suggests government look at general tax revenue to pay for the proposed changes.

"Given the controversy with prices in Nova Scotia, we thought that a political party might be hesitant to suggest adding another small fee [to the power bill] even though it is well accepted in many US jurisdictions," says Gifford.

Either way, most Nova Scotia politicians have little appetite for a power rate hike with an election around the corner.

Neither Andrew Younger, who is the Liberal energy critic, nor Mat Whynot, speaking for the New Democrats, were willing to endorse the proposals. Both told the HMC that they recognize the urgency of the problem, but felt that more study was needed. Both expressed an interest in working with the Ecology Action Centre on this topic.

John Percy, leader of the Nova Scotia Green Party was most supportive of the proposals.

"They are really good band-aid solutions for a much larger problem, which is income inequality," says Percy. "Programs such as this, these are great short-term solutions and we have no problem supporting a lot of these program ideas."

The Nova Scotia Conservatives did not respond to our request for an interview.

Gifford believes that this is not the time to shy away from political clarity.

"The current NDP government [...] have taken some very good steps in the direction of renewable energy and efficiency, and those are now threatened. One of the opposition parties is proposing to defer any further [investments in] renewables and another opposition party is proposing to take the efficiency charge off of the ratepayers bill," says Gifford.

"The current arrangement with an arms-length energy efficiency corporation, that is funded independently from government through ratepayers is a model way of promoting energy efficiency," says Gifford.

"There has been criticism of the very modest fee that is on everybody's power bill. A lot of unfounded criticism in my view, that threatens to undermine this model. This is a leading edge, very progressive, very effective way of promoting conservation and it has in fact proven its worth by what has been done in the last three four years."


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