More than 1,000 Albertans could be at risk of being disconnected from their utilities next month when the provincial restriction on stopping services is lifted.
In Alberta, residents cannot be disconnected from their utilities during winter months, defined as Oct. 15 to April 15 each year. This year’s winter has seen bills across the province skyrocket, leading the Opposition NDP to raise concerns over next month’s deadline.
Energy critic Kathleen Ganley attempted to continue to the freeze of disconnections through the summer until next year’s moratorium becomes active. However, that proposal was defeated in the legislative assembly.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Friday that she believes there are “tens of thousands” of Albertans who are behind on their bills.
“We don’t know the exact details, but we do know that the government has the opportunity to protect those families,” said Notley while presenting a proposal to combat rising inflation. “That is what we are asking them to do.”
When the NDP was in power, it implemented a rate cap in 2016 that limited costs to 6.8 cents per kilowatt for regulated rate option contracts. That price cap was scrapped by the current United Conservative government in 2019.
Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity Dale Nally said in a statement that data on potential disconnects is not yet available but that last year, there were 1,485 disconnections reported to the provincial Utility Consumer Advocate as part of the reconnection program. In 2017-18 there were more than 3,000 reported disconnects.
Those reports do not include all stoppages of services, but rather outline how many people did not have access to their utilities throughout the summer months up until Oct. 15 of last year.
“We regularly keep in contact with retailers about market conditions and issues like disconnections. This week, there was not an above-average number of disconnections disclosed to us compared to what has been seen in past years on April 15,” said Nally in a statement. “We will stay in close contact with these retailers and take action if these numbers rise to concerning levels. The true impact of accounts in arrears from the January to February billing cycles will not be known until about May or June.”
Albertans have been hit hard by rising utility bills as demand driven by extreme weather has been coupled with market factors driving up prices with some Calgarians reporting nearly a doubling on their bills compared to last year. In response, the government implemented a natural gas rebate that will kick in next winter if prices exceed $6.50 per gigajoule. The UCP’s projections in its latest budget do not expect prices to reach those prices but Finance Minister Travis Toews said Albertans will be protected if prices continue to rise.
The government has also created a $150 retroactive rebate for electricity prices over the past three months and has reduced provincial taxes on gasoline to help ease record inflation rates brought on in part by soaring gas prices and unprecedented demand in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Enmax, the company that supplies power to a large number of Calgarians, cited privacy reasons as it said it could not provide numbers on how many residents are at risk of losing power. Spokesperson Chinta Puxley said Enmax will reach out to customers on load limiters — devices that restrict power to a few essential items in the home — to help find manageable payment options.
Epcor, which provides power to Edmontonians, said it expects the same number of people to be on load limits as in previous years when April 15 arrives. It, too, said the company would work with customers who are behind on their payments.
Nally said the most important thing Albertans can do if they fear they are facing a loss in utilities is to stay in contact with their providers. He also said they can contact the Utility Consumer Advocate for more information on specialized programs or contract support.
“Retailers have committed to exploring every option possible to help their customers stay connected with payment plans or other solutions, and they will proactively reach out if a customer is nearing disconnection,” said Nally.
Nally said accepting the NDP’s proposal to extend the moratorium on removing services would cost Albertans in the long run as other consumers would have to pick up the bill.