N.S. opposition parties are calling for urgent action to address energy poverty

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Nova Scotia’s opposition parties call on government to subsidize energy bills for residents struggling with cost of living
WATCH: Some Nova Scotians are struggling to pay their energy bills amid the climbing costs of living. A new group has been struck to determine what can be done to help low-income earners make ends meet. Skye Bryden-Blom reports – Oct 3, 2023

Nova Scotia advocacy groups and opposition parties are calling on the government to subsidize power bills and energy efficiency upgrades for residents struggling with the rising cost of living.

They repeated their calls for action during a legislative committee meeting Tuesday, where the executive director of the Department of Community Services said about 37 per cent of Nova Scotians are experiencing energy poverty.

“People are choosing between disruptions in their services because of utility arrears, sacrificing essentials such as groceries and medication to keep up with bill payments,” Joy Knight told the committee.

Kendra Coombes, the NDP member of legislature for Cape Breton Centre, said the high cost of power is a top concern for residents in her riding and she’s disappointed the government is moving slowly on the file.

“Energy poverty in Cape Breton Centre, Whitney Pier and in other areas of Cape Breton is a huge factor. People are very concerned,” Coombes said in an interview following the committee meeting.

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“It goes, ‘How do I heat my home? How do I keep my home? And how do I get food on the table?’ Those are the three questions and concerns that come to my office,” she said.

Liberal member of legislature Brendan Maguire told the committee that in his riding, which covers communities south of the Halifax peninsula, the high cost of living and rising energy rates are major issues.

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“I represent a community that has some of the highest poverty levels in all of Nova Scotia and it’s only gotten worse,” Maguire said.

In spring 2022, the Progressive Conservative government voted down an amendment from the NDP that would have allowed Nova Scotia Power to establish a low-income electricity rate.

The government promised that year to instead create an advisory group to help determine performance standards for the electric utility, said Adèle Poirier, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables.

In an email, Poirier said the advisory group “is one way to bring forward solutions that will benefit all ratepayers, including low-income Nova Scotians.”

The group has not been created, however. “It is taking longer than we’d hoped to establish … but we should have more information soon,” Poirier said.

During the committee hearing on Tuesday, Knight highlighted government programs aimed at helping those dealing with energy poverty, including a heating assistance rebate and a raise to the seniors care grant to $750 per household.

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“I recognize there is still a lot more to do, and we will continue to work diligently to identify and implement measures to support Nova Scotians,” she said.

Two weeks ago, a working group led by community organization Affordable Energy Coalition met for the first time to discuss how to lower rates for low-income residents. The group is also composed of environmental charity Ecology Action Centre and representatives from several government departments.

Brian Gifford, chair of energy coalition, said Tuesday Nova Scotia “can do better” to help those who are struggling to pay for electricity.

“We are now in another period of energy price volatility and increases that are pushing more people into making impossible choices due to high energy bills,” Gifford said.

Gifford said it’s important to tackle energy poverty using a combination of efficiency upgrades, such as switching to heat pumps from heating oil, and government financial support.

“We know people are suffering now,” Gifford said. “We know we can stop that with efficiency, and heat pumps, and with a program to provide energy bill credits for low- and modest-income households until their homes’ bills drop due to efficiency upgrades.”

Nova Scotia Power customer care director Chris Lanteigne told the committee that so far this year, 2,825 residential customers have been disconnected from power because they were not able to pay their bills.

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Jacqueline Foster, a spokesperson with Nova Scotia Power, said in an email that the utility reduced disconnections from 2020 to 2022, during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in 834 disconnections for non-payment in 2020, 1,355 in 2021, and 1,502 in 2022.

Between 2015 and 2019, Nova Scotia Power disconnected an average of 3,017 residential customers per year for non-payment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023.

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