The B.C. government has attempted to sweeten its 25-per-cent hydro rate hike over five years by noting the province's energy remains relatively cheap compared to other jurisdictions – a fact some critics say does nothing to soften the blow of the increased costs for power.
"Will anybody be jumping up and down today saying, 'Yay, the government raised my hydro rates?' No. I'm pretty sure they won't," Energy Minister Bill Bennett told reporters in Victoria as he outlined his long-awaited rates policy Tuesday. "But in the context of what everybody else on the continent pays for electricity rates, I think it is affordable."
The government pointed to a Hydro-Québec study, which compared electricity prices in 21 major North American cities on April 1, 2013, as part of an annual exercise. The results are based on a survey of 15 utilities as well as estimates by Hydro-Québec. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study finds Hydro-Québec rates "among the most advantageous in North America" for residential customers.
But it also ranks Vancouver rates as third-lowest, higher than only Montreal and Winnipeg, on a comparative index of electricity prices for residential customers who consume 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month excluding taxes. At $130 a month, British Columbia's largest city is a notch lower than Seattle at $131. The most expensive city is San Francisco at $334. For large-power customers of 5,000 kW or more, Vancouver ranks sixth, between Portland and Miami.
John Horgan, the B.C. NDP energy critic, said despite the province's relatively low rates, consumers would still struggle to pay more.
"We do have amongst the lowest rates in North America. We always have. That doesn't change the fact that this is a significant shock for industry and for individuals. That's the part I think sounds disingenuous when you hear the minister say, 'Oh yeah. we're still doing okay.' That's cold comfort if you have to find an additional $100 or $150 as an individual and many hundreds of thousands if you're an industry."
Richard Stout, the executive director of the Association of Major Power Customers of B.C., is skeptical about the Hydro-Québec study and uneasy about the rate hikes announced on Tuesday.
"You could still say, and the government does, and they have got a point, that we're not that high, we're in the lower quartile still, but the point is it's moving upwards, and the projections are for it to continue moving upwards," he said.
Mr. Stout said B.C. has a tradition of cut-rate power costs, but rates have gone up in recent years and any increase, he says, hurts the province's competitiveness.
"We recognize that it's inevitable that rates go up," he said. "What we prefer to happen as soon as possible is independent regulation of BC Hydro such that we can open the black box and understand better what goes into those costs."
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria