B.C. Hydro customers will have to pay off $5.5 billion in operating debt that has been pushed into the future to keep rates from spiking, and it’s not yet clear how the NDP government is going to tackle that.
Energy Minister Michelle Mungall’s initial effort to freeze rates was blocked by regulators, requiring a 3.5 per cent increase in 2017. Last year’s increase was another three per cent, similar to what the B.C. Liberal government had scheduled in its 10-year rate plan.
In June of 2018, Mungall announced separate reviews of Hydro’s capital and operating debt, with outside experts to find a way forward, after the NDP government reluctantly decided to complete the $10 billion Site C project.
A key goal for Mungall is to return rate-setting to the B.C. Utilities Commission, after a series of directives from the previous government that drew accusations of political interference to make B.C. Hydro’s financial picture look better than it is.
On Wednesday, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer released the latest report on B.C. Hydro’s deferred operating debt, which is separate from the billions in capital debt racked up for project such as Site C on the Peace River, the John Hart Dam reconstruction on Vancouver Island and the Ruskin dam and powerhouse rebuild in the Fraser Valley.
Deferring the bills of major storms and other unexpected spikes in operating costs is normal practice for utilities, Bellringer says. But B.C. Hydro’s network of 29 accounts is unusually complicated, with “rate smoothing” effects on future rates unclear.
In their response to Bellringer’s report, the ministry and B.C. Hydro emphasize that current customer rates are already on track to pay off 25 of the 29 deferral accounts.
Three that are not are the “customer crisis fund” account, the “Site C regulatory account” and the “rate smoothing regulatory account.”