Green Action Centre has long promoted green and fair energy rates and policies for Manitoba Hydro. Energy should be priced to promote conservation, but bills to low-income customers should be within reach of their ability to pay. How can this be done?

Green Power Smart rates

For residential customers, conservation pricing, which we call Power Smart pricing, usually takes the form of inclined rates. For example Seattle City Light charges only $4.35 for the basic monthly charge and $0.0557 a kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy for the first 300 kWh a month in summer and the first 480 kWh a month in winter – both significantly lower than Manitoba Hydro’s $7.28 basic charge and $0.0781/kWh for energy. However once the cheap first block of energy is exceeded, the higher consumption is charged $0.1189/kWh – more than twice as much as the first block. This provides a powerful incentive to conserve electricity.

We’d like to see a similar rate structure implemented in Manitoba.

An affordability strategy

Obviously such an inclined rate structure makes electricity much more affordable for customers who don’t consume large amounts. And since the average low-income residence uses less electricity than the average of other households, inclined rates would mean lower bills than now for a majority of low-income customers. So that’s one part of an answer to the affordability question.

But there are still many low-income customers with higher electrical consumption than they can afford – especially those who heat with electricity, often because much cheaper natural gas is unavailable where they live. How can they be helped? To answer that question, Green Action Centre has engaged Roger Colton, an expert on energy poverty and utilities, to testify before Manitoba’s Public Utilities Board in the current Manitoba Hydro rate hearing. Mr. Colton’s report is available here. You are welcome to hear him testify in person at 9 a.m. on June 10th in the Public Utilities Board hearing room, 4th floor of the Newport building at 330 Portage Ave.

Colton focuses on utility strategies to address inability-to-pay customers.

“Inability-to-pay” refers to a customer who by reason of level of income and/or level of consumption, alone or in combination, receives monthly bills that cannot be consistently paid in a sustainable fashion over the course of time. (MH/GAC-1)

These customers pose, not just a social welfare issue, but a business problem for the utility. For example, Hydro is not permitted to shut off electricity or gas used for heating during the winter months, whether or not customers pay their bills. As a business problem, inability-to-pay bills deserves a proactive, programmatic response.

Colton recommends a multi-pronged approach, some parts of which Manitoba Hydro already has.

  • Hydro’s Affordable Energy Program subsidizes insulation, weather-stripping, low-flow shower heads, and high-efficiency gas furnaces for low-income customers to reduce their energy consumption. Lower consumption means lower bills.
  • Their Neighbours Helping Neighbours program invites customers to contribute to a fund that makes a one-time emergency payment to cover arrears for a customer who can’t pay their bill.
  • Their Equal Payment Plan spreads the high costs of winter heating over the entire year.

In addition, customers enrolled in Provincial income assistance programs can have their Hydro bills covered.

But despite these programs, there still remain tens of thousands of customers who can’t pay their Hydro bills, fall ever further into arrears, and eventually are subject to disconnection and collection actions – all of which are quite costly to the utility. With Hydro rates projected to increase at 3.95%/year for the next decade or more, that number is likely to increase.

Mr. Colton recommends several additional tools to address inability-to-pay.

  • subsidized fuel switching to cheaper fuels (geothermal and high-efficiency natural gas cost half or less what electricity costs for heating once the system is paid for),
  • partial arrearage forgiveness (e.g. by matching customer arrears payments with added credits to bring down the balance to a manageable level), and
  • bill assistance to lower bills for current usage (which can take a number of different forms).

As Colton explains:

My conclusion above is that it is unreasonable to exclude a bill assistance program as one of the available tools based on an out-moded and economically flawed conclusion that inability-to-pay is only a “social” problem. To the extent that energy efficiency can reduce bills to an affordable burden, bill assistance is not needed …. To the extent that public funds (through a social assistance program) are available to pay the bills of inability-topay customers, ratepayer-provided funds through a bill assistance program are not needed. To the extent that a customer faces an arrearage balance because of an emergency situation, but otherwise has an ability-to-pay, a crisis assistance program is appropriate and ongoing assistance is not needed. To the extent that a customer faces seasonal unaffordability, but has adequate income to pay annual bills, a levelized budget bill is appropriate.

A Made-in-Manitoba solution

While the outline of an affordable energy program can be gleaned from decades of utility experience in other jurisdictions, the refinement and integration of multiple affordability tools requires local knowledge and research. Hence Mr. Colton recommends that the PUB should initiate and lead a collaborative process with Manitoba Hydro and other stakeholders to devise a comprehensive made-in-Manitoba solution containing the elements identified above.

By Peter Miller
Green Action Centre Policy Committee Member