For decades, B.C. governments have hidden the true cost of Hydro rates -especially the BC Liberals.
Under the direction of the BC Liberals, the Crown utility used “inappropriate” accounting to pile $5.5-billion in what are known as deferral accounts says B.C.’s auditor-general.
“That debt amounts to $1,300 for every residential customer, more than $10,000 for each commercial and light industrial ratepayer, and almost $5-million for each large industrial consumer,” according to the Globe and Mail, February 7, 2019.
Deferral accounts are not improper when correctly accounted for. They can be used as a temporary measure to avoid the shock of sudden rate hikes. After rates are gradually increased, the deferral account can be paid off.
But that’s not what happened. To keep voters happy and to make governments popular, BC Hydro rates were kept artificially low leaving future governments to deal with the problem of billions hidden in deferral accounts.
“BC Hydro was not allowed to charge its customers enough to cover its operating costs each year,” Auditor-General Carol Bellringer wrote.
The current minister responsible for BC Hydro, Bruce Ralston, said his government is committed to fixing the problem but it will take time given the size of the debt. “We are going to keep rates affordable. No one’s rates are going up by $1,300 in a year.” His government has already reduced the deferral accounts by $950-million by bringing that debt onto government books.
The NDP government also intends to prevent misuse of deferral accounts by future governments by restoring the role of the independent regulator, the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) and ensuring that BC Hydro adopts ordinary accounting practices.
Industries who are used to cheap hydro are not happy with the prospect of paying the real cost of producing electricity. Industry representative Richard Stout says industrial customers shouldn’t absorb the shock of getting Hydro back on sound financial footing. Since the government is responsible for the mess, they should pay:
“I think most would agree the appropriate source of paying down the debt should be from government, rather than the ratepayer.”
Huh? He wants taxpayers (the government) to pay for the meddling of former governments rather than ratepayers? Last time I looked Hydro users and taxpayers were one and the same.
Critics of BC Hydro will point to the debt incurred in building the massive hydro dam at Site C as an additional source of the problem. The project was started by the BC Liberals and given green light by the NDP who said the project had gone too far to abandon.
The government is faced with a hard choice, says Bellringer: “You can either have a rate increase or you can end up with a deficit that ends up getting covered by the government at some point.”
Hiding Hydro debt, which in reality is our debt, is not an option.
Transferring BC Hydro’s debt to the government’s books is the right thing to do but government debt is not popular with voters because it’s visible. Turning control of BC Hydro over to an independent regulator is the right thing do but hydro rates will go up.
We’ll see if doing the right thing pays off for the NDP in the next election.