When Tory government MLAs voted down an amendment from the NDP in 2022 that would have seen the Public Utilities Act changed to give Nova Scotia Power the ability to establish a dedicated low-income rate, Natural Resources and Renewables Minister Tory Rushton said an advisory group he was assembling to review standards and penalties for the utility would also consider the idea of alternative rates.
But 17 months later, that group hasn't been established.
In an interview this week, Rushton acknowledged it's taking longer than he expected, but he said that's not an indication of where the issue rates among government priorities.
"This is something very much that is still on my radar and there will be an update coming very shortly," he said.
Rushton pointed to announcements last year such as help for low-income households purchasing heat pumps so they can stop using heating oil and a number of efficiency programs intended to help lower power bills.
"Affordability for everything is of paramount interest of this government and that includes the ratepayers," he said.
But opposition party leaders are questioning that commitment.
'We want to see some compassion'
NDP Leader Claudia Chender said other utilities already have provisions such as forgiveness programs, payment programs and differential rates for people who can't afford to pay their bills.
As the province experiences a housing crisis, Chender said the ability to pay a power bill can sometimes be the deciding factor in whether someone is able to stay in their home or is forced out.
"We want to see some compassion from this government," she said. "We want to see an acknowledgement that they understand the challenges that Nova Scotians are living through."
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said he supports a low-income power rate, but it must be designed in a way that doesn't lead to rates going up for other people to cover the difference.
Like Chender, Churchill said the delay in the establishment of Rushton's advisory panel looks bad for the government at a time when so many people are struggling with the cost of living.
"The fact that this group has not been put together in a year and a half who could help formulate a plan to deal with this and help people, I think is really shocking and disappointing and Nova Scotians are going to be paying more as a result," Churchill said.
New working group examines energy affordability
Although that group is still not in place, a member of the Affordable Energy Coalition, which advocates for the end of energy poverty, is hoping meetings with the provincial government, Nova Scotia Power and other agencies could lead to more security for people who struggle to pay their power bill.
Brian Gifford said the recently created working group that includes representatives from Efficiency Nova Scotia — and could grow in membership — came about when his organization approached several cabinet ministers last year following a one-time increase in the heating assistance rebate program and debate around the Public Utilities Act.
"We thought the fact that they expanded the heating assistance rebate program was a signal that they were interested in the issue," Gifford said.
The expansion saw the value of the grant for Nova Scotians increase from $200 to $1,000 and eligibility broadened to include families with household incomes of up to $85,000. The change cost $100 million.
The government has yet to release the details of the program for the coming heating season.
Brian Gifford, a member of the Affordable Energy Coalition, attends the legislature's law amendments committee in this file photo. (Michael Gorman/CBC)
Gifford said he's hoping recommendations from the new working group will inform approaches for future years.
One thing he'd like to see is the inclusion of oil in an assistance program, given the continued volatility of home heating fuel prices and the large percentage of people in Nova Scotia who still use it to heat their homes.
Those prices will continue to increase as the federal government's carbon tax increases, although at least some of the cost is offset by rebate cheques from Ottawa and its own program to promote conversion to heat pumps.
For years, the Affordable Energy Coalition has advocated for a universal service program that would see a credit placed on power bills for low-income households so they're not paying more than six per cent of their income on energy costs.
Gifford said there are various configurations for how it could work based on jurisdictions where it's already happening, but the working group could also lead to other options.
"We've been promoting this one particular idea, but we know Ontario went with a modified way and Nova Scotia could modify it again," he said.
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