Tufts Cove Generating Plant. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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You know we are in the time of the Apocalypse when Nova Scotia Power is promising not to turn off the lights (or the heat) if you don’t pay your  bill. Well, at least not for the next 90 days if you are a residential or small business customer.

“We are in uncertain and unprecedented times,” reads the news release issued by NS Power president and CEO Wayne O’Connor. “As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves each day, we’re evolving too… we know that this is a situation that will be ongoing for months, not days, and we’re committed to supporting you… And that means making changes in how we do business.”

“For at least the next 90 days, we will not be disconnecting customers for nonpayment,” the release goes on. “We’re also committed to being flexible, relaxing payment timelines, waiving penalties and fees on unpaid bills, and providing options for residential and small business customers. If you’re struggling to pay your bill, our Customer Care team is ready to listen and work with you, so you can stay as current as possible with your payments.”

NS Power made $138-million in profit for its shareholders last year. It can afford to relax the payment schedule. But while the company says it is ready to forgive, it’s definitely not prepared to forget what ratepayers will owe eventually.

“We also encourage those that can, to stay up to date with their payments,” reads the release. “Not only will this avoid building up a balance, but it will help us support those who are most in need of financial assistance.”

Nova Scotians pay among the highest power bills in the country and saw a 1.2% increase this January. It would be nice to see an even bigger break on an essential service in these times of trouble.

Brian Gifford is a member of the Affordable Energy Coalition, which has fought to bring down the price of electricity and advocated for low-income people who often must choose whether “to heat or eat.” Gifford says he is “personally impressed” with the decisions made by the company that also include temporarily suspending “collections calls” and a commitment to “pause future interest charges on late payments” for the next 90 days.

However, Gifford says the Affordable Energy Coalition “is monitoring what is happening in Ontario to see if there’s anything further we want to recommend to NS Power and/or the Nova Scotia Government. We have allies in Ontario who have sent us notices about how Ontario is helping low income and all Ontario electricity customers. Ontario Hydro has cut electricity rates temporarily.”

Yesterday afternoon — at almost the same hour NS Power was sending out its news release — Doug Ford’s government in Ontario was ordering a price cut on electricity for all Ontario consumers for the next six weeks. Unlike Nova Scotia where low rates are only in effect overnight, Ontario customers have a broader choice of when they can pay less for using electricity. It’s referred to as a time-of-use rate. Here’s what the Ontario government’s news release said:

For a 45-day period, the government is working to suspend time-of-use electricity rates, holding electricity prices to the off-peak rate of 10.1 cents-per-kilowatt-hour. This reduced price will be available 24 hours per day, seven days a week to all time-of-use customers, who make up the majority of electricity consumers in the province. By switching to a fixed off-peak rate, time-of-use customers will see rate reductions of over 50 per cent compared to on-peak rates.

“During this unprecedented time, we are providing much-needed relief to Ontarians, specifically helping those who are doing the right thing by staying home and small businesses that have closed or are seeing fewer customers,” said Premier Doug Ford.

The electricity regulator in Ontario, the Ontario Energy Board, has also ordered the utility not to disconnect any residential or small business customers before July 31 of this year if they are late with their bill payments.

Gifford’s Affordable Energy Coalition has a conference call scheduled this week to discuss if more relief could or should be available to Nova Scotians who are staying home and running up the power bill. (We pay closer to 16 cents per kilowatt hour compared to the 10 cents Ontarians are paying).

Nova Scotia Power also announced it is donating an additional $500,000 to the Home Energy Assistance Top-up (HEAT Fund) available through the Salvation Army and Government of Nova Scotia to homeowners struggling with heating costs. Deadlines and eligibility restrictions have been waived for this year. Find out more here.

The monopoly is also contributing $500,000 to the United Way’s Atlantic Compassion Fund to help people affected by the pandemic.

The news release says the company has suspended “non-essential in-home and in-business services, but critical service connects and disconnects will continue. Vegetation management will also continue to keep trees clear from critical customers and infrastructure across the province.”

Business but not business as usual.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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