Residents told Cabin Radio their power bills are increasing as they use more energy while studying and working from home. Others worried about paying bills as they’re out of work or earning less due to the pandemic.
Yellowknife resident John Gon says high electricity costs, a longstanding issue in the North, are coming to a head. He estimates his bill went up by $100 to $150 in the past month.
“There are a number of people I know who are complaining too. I’m sure the whole city of Yellowknife feels the same way,” he said.
Gon works as a contractor and runs an audio and video production company. He said, like many people, he has been laid off as a result of the pandemic, which adds an extra challenge when it comes to paying bills.
“They’re not giving us a break,” he said of utility providers and the territorial government.
“I think it’s unfair that they have to charge us so much money and we have to pay a lot of money just to live in Yellowknife. I think my future here in Yellowknife is coming to an end.”
Jennifer Vornbrock, co-owner of Yellowknife’s Monkey Tree Pub and Stake Restaurant, said she’s especially concerned for people who are out of work and relying on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (a federal relief fund providing $500 a week for up to 16 weeks) to pay expenses.
Several people told Cabin Radio their monthly utility bills during the pandemic have been in the $500 range.
“The North is really fragile when it comes to how we live and our monthly day-to-day expenses,” Vornbrock said.
Giving the federal benefit’s $2,000 monthly income as an example, she said: “For our family, that’s groceries for the month. That’s not much more.”
Government ‘has an obligation to help’
Vornbrock said the restaurant’s landlord has been understanding when it comes to challenges paying rent and utilities. But the longer restaurants have to remain closed, she said, the harder it will be to reopen and pay deferred bills.
“We can’t survive off delivery with our bills,” she said.
“We wouldn’t want to come back out of this owing all kinds of money and then spending five years trying to recover from that. That doesn’t make any sense. It would be better for us to just walk away.”
Vornbrock has applied for northern business and relief and launched Easy Meals, a meal kit delivery service.
“It’s a funny world we’re living in, it’s crazy right now,” she said.
“It’s every morning you wake up and you’re kind-of just trying to figure out how to tackle that day and it’s tough to get through.”
But Vornbrock noted there’s a limit to the support governments and corporations can provide.
“The first thing they teach you in economics is there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Like, it costs something somewhere,” she said. “The power company can’t just say, ‘OK, we’re going to just discount power,’ because there is the cost to that as well.”
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said many constituents have raised concerns about power bills during the pandemic.
Johnson said targeting utility costs would be a good way to provide relief to residents across the North – particularly business owners that have had to close their stores.
For relief to be effective, he said any reductions would need to be significant. It would take millions of dollars from the territorial government to see a reduction of at least 25 percent, he added.
“Whether we have that money, when there is pressure to put more into health, becomes the question,” Johnson wrote in an email.
“Yet ultimately, as long as the government is ordering everyone to close businesses, we have an obligation to assist in every way we can with keeping money in residents’ pockets during these times.”
What is the power corporation doing?
In March, the NWT Power Corporation stopped using power-limiting equipment on homes until further notice after being told to do so by Shane Thompson, the territorial minister responsible for the corporation.
Limiters are used by the corporation to restrict the flow of electricity to households more than 28 days late paying their bills.
A request for comment from the power corporation was directed to the territorial government.
Shane Thompson, the Nahendeh MLA, has been the minister responsible for the power corporation since his re-election in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Cabin Radio requested an interview with Minister Thompson. The territorial government responded with an emailed statement attributed to Thompson which says he recognizes this is a “challenging time” for residents. (Thompson is now due to a conduct a live interview on Friday at 7pm.)
When it comes to electricity rates, Thompson wrote that the power corporation “does not have authority to arbitrarily adjust rates without specific direction from the NWT Public Utilities Board.” He added these rates are based on the cost to generate, transmit, and distribute electricity as well as investments in infrastructure.
Public Utilities Board waits to hear from GNWT
The Public Utilities Board is the NWT”s regulator for utility companies like the power corporation and Northland Utilities, which distributes power in Yellowknife and Hay River.
Northland or the power corporation must apply to the board to adjust the rates they charge customers, and must provide evidence for their request.
Gord Van Tighem, chairman of the Public Utilities Board, said the board is examining what other jurisdictions are doing and would consider any suggestions or applications to reduce rates.
Van Tighem noted the utilities board will have to look at the long-term impacts of any measures to ensure customers don’t face large increases further down the line.
Ultimately, Van Tighem said, the answer on how to support people struggling with bills has to come from the government.
“We’re in interesting times,” he said. “There are going to be some tough questions and some important decisions upcoming, and hopefully we’ll get through this sooner rather than later.”
According to a report released in February by Energyhub.org, the Northwest Territories has the most expensive electricity prices in Canada at an average cost of $0.387 per kilowatt hour. Comparatively, the national average is $0.174 per kilowatt hour – or $0.135 in the southern provinces.
Canada’s energy regulator notes electricity prices are significantly higher in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut because of low population density and expensive generation costs. Remote communities are reliant on costly, carbon-intensive energy sources like diesel.
Thompson said during the pandemic, the power corporation is allowing customers to defer bill payments or enter into flexible payment plans. It’s unclear how long customers are able to defer payments and whether they will face extra costs for doing so.
Thompson said the power corporation’s actions mirror other jurisdictions in Canada.
“The Covid-19 situation is evolving rapidly and we will continue to review all options to support NWT residents,” he wrote.
A representative for Northland Utilities said the company has committed to not disconnect anyone from power due to non-payment and is also offering flexible bill-payment options.
You may get some other payment instead
Speaking to Cabin Radio’s Covid Corner earlier this week, Premier Caroline Cochrane said her government’s focus in recent weeks has been on health – but the issue of power bills is not “off the table” and something Thompson, her minister, “has been looking at very seriously.”
Cochrane encouraged anyone who is struggling to apply to the territory’s income support program.
In a subsequent episode of Covid Corner, Minister of Finance Caroline Wawzonek said addressing power rates is a challenge because there’s a disparity in the rates people have to pay across the territory, and the level of subsidy they receive.
Wawzonek, noting the complex regulatory system governing those rates, said: “That is probably going to be a more difficult one to solve. We might be able to help out one community, but are you doing it at the expense of another?”
The finance minister said the issue may instead be resolved through other financial relief measures the government is planning. Details of those are not yet available.
The territorial government did not address questions about whether it would consider subsidies, credits, or a customer assistance program to specifically help those facing difficulties paying power bills.
What are other jurisdictions doing?
Provinces and territories across Canada are offering residents, businesses, and farms relief from power bills during the pandemic in a variety of ways, from payment deferrals to reduced rates and targeted credits.
The Alberta government has committed to not cut anyone off from power or reduce their service during the pandemic.
Residents, small business owners, and farmers in the province can defer utility bill payments until June 19 if they have tested positive for Covid-19, been directed to self-isolate, have lost their job, or are taking care of a family member. They will not face late fees or added interest payments for doing so.
Albertans who were behind on their utility bills before the deferral program launched on March 18 are also eligible for deferral.
In British Columbia, the government announced April 1 that BC Hydro is offering three months’ credit to residential customers who have lost their jobs or are unable to work because of Covid-19. Eligible residents have to apply for the program and be approved. They do not have to repay the credit.
Small businesses that have had to close will have their power bills forgiven from April to June 2020. Major industries in the province can defer half of their bill payments for three months.
On March 13, BC Hydro also introduced a Covid-19 customer assistance program, which enables customers to defer bill payments or arrange flexible payment plans with no penalties. Customers having difficulty paying their bills due to job loss, illness, or loss of a family member may also be eligible for BC Hydro’s Customer Crisis Fund, which provides grants up to $600.
Manitoba Hydro has stopped disconnections related to overdue bills until further notice. People who are struggling financially can arrange payment plans and have late payment charges waived for up to six months.
The Qulliq Energy Corporation will not disconnect anyone from power or install load limiters until further notice.
In an announcement not specifically tied to the pandemic, the corporation applied on April 1 to refund customers a fuel rider of 2.76 cents per kilowatt hour between April 1 and September 30. It says customers who use 500 kilowatt hours per month can expect to see their monthly bills drop by about $14.50.
The fuel rider accounts for the difference between fuel prices reflected in electricity rates and the actual cost of fuel paid by the energy corporation. The Nunavut government announced it was reducing retail fuel prices in January.
On March 24, the Ontario government announced that for 45 days it would hold electricity prices to off-peak rates for families, small businesses, and farms. It said customers will see rates reduced to half the usual peak-time cost.
SaskPower announced it was suspending all active collections on March 17 and would stop disconnecting homes for non-payment. Customers whose power has already been disconnected, or who have a limiter installed at their home, can contact the utility to have power restored and the limiter removed.
SaskPower said flexible payment plans are available but notes “all customers will ultimately be responsible to pay for the power they use.”
Yukon Energy says it is working with customers who are having trouble paying their bills on a case-by-case basis.
Yukon Energy and Atco Electric Yukon say they will not disconnect anyone for non-payment and are offering bill payment options. They are working with the Yukon government to explore other remedies.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.