It is very bad news that consumers received this week when Hydro-Québec announced a 1.3% increase in electricity rates for 2021. This announcement comes in the midst of a pandemic when the population is being asked to confine themselves as much as possible, among other things by favoring teleworking and distance education. However, for many households, confinement means an increase in the electricity bill, a bill they are already struggling to pay.
As a consumer rights organization, we negotiate agreements with Hydro-Québec every year for people in difficulty of payment. Among these are a large number of poor households who have been hit hard by the increases in electricity prices over the past 15 years. Every year, we are alarmed to see an increase in the prices of a service as essential as electricity. In the difficult context we are experiencing, we are particularly worried.
A month of April that may hurt
Since the start of the pandemic, Hydro-Québec has suspended service interruptions for its customers who are late in paying. This decision allowed many people who had lost their jobs or found themselves in financial difficulty to retain an essential service. Being without power is never harmless. It means not being able to wash, heat and eat properly. It also means not having access to running water when supplied by an artesian well. Depriving families of power during confinement would have been simply cruel. So stopping the interruptions was the right thing to do. But during this time, the debts piled up. The rate increase announced this week will come into effect on April 1, 2021, the date on which Hydro-Quebec plans to resume disconnections. What will be the status of the outstanding payments at this time? How will people manage to pay the price increase while paying off their debt?
In 2018, nearly 50,000 households were disconnected by Hydro-Québec. It is the equivalent of the city of Shawinigan. For more than 10% of them, the interruption lasted more than 7 days. We fear that this number will increase in 2021.
Price increase + consumption increase = households in difficulty
The tariff increase on April 1 is not only of concern to households indebted to Hydro-Quebec. Why? Because with confinement and unemployment, household electricity consumption has increased. In fact, in the second quarter of 2020, residential consumption was 5% higher than in the second quarter of 2019. In September, during the annual review of their equal payments, many people registered for this service saw their payments. monthly bills increase significantly, despite a rather mild winter and a rate freeze in 2020.
The observed increase in electricity consumption is not about to be reversed. According to several studies, telecommuting is here to stay. There is also no indication that homeschooling will end in the near future. Thus, households will consume more (despite themselves) and they will pay more for their electricity.
In Quebec, more than one in three workers lives from one paycheck to another. We see this situation every day in our practice. Each year, we support hundreds of people with their budget. In the vast majority of cases, there is no more room for maneuver. This new rate hike, in times of a pandemic to boot, will only further strangle households which are already suffocating under the weight of their financial obligations. There is an urgent need to recognize that access to energy is a fundamental human right that must be protected.
Hydro-Québec gives 75% of its profits to the government. We believe that Hydro-Québec’s profits should rather be used to lower the electricity bill. In these times of pandemic and containment, while many Quebecers suffer and worry about the future, we believe that the government should support its population by decreeing a freeze on electricity rates for 2021.