Energy poverty — a lack of affordable access to the energy services that contribute to quality of life — is a condition that occurs at the nexus of high energy costs, poor energy efficiency in homes, and lower income households. As of October 2019, there were approximately 272,200 households in British Columbia facing energy poverty.[i] In the new context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is reasonable to assume that the incidence of energy poverty — and the gravity of its effects — are being further compounded by the job losses and increased residential energy consumption associated with the pandemic.[ii]
Households in British Columbia facing energy poverty are currently provided limited options for support and protection. Based on a review of programming across Canada and the United States, and interviews with program administrators in a number of key jurisdictions, this research considered model programs and best practices that could help inform British Columbia’s approach to energy poverty going forward. This report considers measures that can help lower energy costs through both ongoing subsidy and emergency relief programs. We believe that both of these measures are essential to address energy poverty, and are especially needed during the current period of economic vulnerability and ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This research has found that BC’s current body of initiatives aimed at relieving energy poverty is inadequate when compared to other jurisdictions in North America. As such, it is imperative that the Provincial Government rethink its current suite of energy cost protections as part of its economic recovery strategy, and act to update the suite of energy support programs available to vulnerable households.
Our research underlined the need for a breadth of programming to reduce costs for customers facing energy poverty at various stages on both an ongoing and urgent basis. British Columbia currently has no ongoing bill support program, and the high rejection rate of BC Hydro’s Customer Crisis Fund — when viewed alongside the prevalence of energy poverty in the province — suggests that this pilot program is suffering from an insufficiently comprehensive eligibility mechanism. BC Hydro’s current tiered residential rate structure also penalizes electrification of space heating for many customers, further compounding the issue of high energy costs. Based on energy costs from April 2020, heating with natural gas in British Columbia costs on average one third of what it costs to heat with older electric heating technologies.[iii]
Several other provinces, many US states, and the US federal government have established successful programs that provide assistance on a monthly basis to those that are unable to pay part of their electricity or heating bill. Considering the extensive electrification of space and water heating planned as part of the CleanBC climate plan, introducing an ongoing assistance program for electricity bills, together with the implementation of high-efficiency electric heating appliances, could also act as a means of advancing British Columbia’s electrification goals by encouraging fuel switching to electric heating.
We have identified a series of key recommendations for the improvement of British Columbia’s current approach to energy cost assistance. Those recommendations are summarized below and discussed in more detail in the report that follows.
In summary, we propose the implementation of a sliding-scale percentage rebate for income qualifying electricity accounts based on household income, with increased rebate amounts available for a number of customer classes including those heating with electricity. We also propose a redesign of the existing Customer Crisis Fund.
READ the full report: Rethinking Energy Bill Protections In British Columbia (2020)
[ii] Limited, H. (2020, May 19). COVID-19: Shifting how we use energy. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from https://hydroottawa.com/blog/covid-19-shifting-how-we-use-energy
[iii] FortisBC. (n.d.). Fuel cost comparison. Retrieved July, 2020, from https://www.fortisbc.com/services/natural-gas-services/why-choose-natural-gas/annual-fuel-cost-comparison