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BC Hydro offers payment plan to deal with big bills from winter cold snap

 Randy Shore

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Ratepayers who are struggling to pay steep electric bills due to B.C.'s unusually cold winter can spread their payments over six months under a new instalment plan offered by B.C. Hydro.

“Given the unusually cold weather, we anticipate that many of our customers will receive higher than normal bills,” said B.C. Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald.

The program allows people to spread out payments on bills from the winter billing period, which runs from Dec. 1, 2016, to March 31, 2017. To participate call, 1-800-BCHYDRO or (1-800-224-9376)

The Crown utility set a 10-year record for electricity demand Jan. 3 and could easily best that mark later this week as temperatures plummet again. The cold has pushed most Hydro bills higher, in some cases hundreds of dollars higher than normal, for people who heat their homes with electricity.

Adrian Dix, New Democrat MLA and Hydro opposition critic, said the winter-payment program is further proof that British Columbians are struggling to keep up with rate increases. Disconnections by Hydro rose more than six-fold between fiscal 2013 and 2015, from about 5,000 to more than 32,000. Another 30,000 were disconnected in 2016, according to Dix. Most are reconnected within a few days.

B.C. Hydro is entering the fourth year of a five-year plan to increase rates by 28 per cent. The price of electricity will go up 3.5 per cent this year and another three per cent next year, according to Hydro.

"When you combine massive rate increases on top of a cold winter, people are really struggling to pay their Hydro bills right now," said Dix. "The problem with this (winter-payment) program is that it doesn't give people a break on the bill, it only gives them more time to pay."

On average, residential energy consumption can increase by 88 per cent in cold, dark months compared with normal summer consumption. Only 30 per cent of the households (400,000) use the utility's Equal Payment Plan, which pro-rates energy bills so that the customer pays the same monthly bill throughout the year.

Gas utility Fortis B.C. also offers a pro-rated equal-payment plan, but has no plans to offer a special payment plan this winter.

Customers can use online power monitoring tools at bchydro.com to see how much power they're consuming daily and even hourly, said B.C. Hydro conservation manager Pat Mathot. You can also see how much power your home is using compared with similar homes nearby, which is a proven motivator for conservation. About one million customers already use the monitoring metrics provided free by Hydro.

The hourly view makes it easy for customers to see how much electricity they're consuming when they're getting ready for work — mainly hot water for showers — and when they get home from work, which includes everything from cooking and hot water to heat and light. Customers can also use the tracking tools to experiment with overnight temperature settings and to ferret out devices that are sucking up power 24/7.

"When you look at the hours when you are sleeping you can see the vampire load, those things that are always on and drawing power," he said.

rshore@postmedia.com