Calgary

As people struggle to pay rising utility bills, Enmax won't say how many have had their power cut off

With power prices up, a lot of people are finding it tough to pay the utility bill. But how many can’t pay and end up with their power cut or limited? Enmax won't say.

'This is something that we certainly need to watch,' says one councillor

City-owned Enmax has so far refused to share data relating to the number of clients on electricity load-limiters and facing disconnections. (CBC)

Those stepping up to help people struggling to pay utility bills say they're seeing significant discrepancies in how Enmax treats different Calgary residents before they get their power limited or disconnected.

And with the city-owned company still not giving clear figures on how many people have power disconnected or strictly limited each year, some on city council are pushing for greater transparency.

"This is something that we certainly need to watch and make sure it is not affecting affecting residents unjustly," said Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian.

Enmax has declined all interview requests related to CBC Calgary's utilities project, including questions about disconnection and limiters.

Calgary residents who have been on electrical load limiters say it's a device that gets put on your meter to limit the flow of electricity. Stoves, dryers and other large electronics no longer work; turning on too many lights or computers will also trigger a temporary disconnection. 

It encourages people to stay on top of their bills — which keeps rates down for everyone in Alberta's regulated environment — but the number of people going through this and the stories they tell are raising concerns.

'Mind boggling'

In north-central Calgary, Jennifer Rapuano-Kremenik takes calls from desperate individuals, then posts about these situations one-by-one on social media to find donations. She says her small non-profit, Harvest Hills Cares, had more than 300 calls in the past year just for utility bills.

She can't figure out why some people face a limiter before others.

"I have had someone be put on a limiter for $114. Where other people have had a $8,000 bill [before being placed on a limiter]. It's mind boggling," said Rapuano-Kremenik, executive director for the aid organization.

One family was placed on a limiter while their kids were learning from home. 

"Their load limiter kept tripping because they were using their laptops for school," she said. 

Another one of her clients, a senior, was placed on a load limiter and as a result was unable to use their breathing machine and microwave at the same time.

CBC Calgary also heard stories through our utility bill text messaging group and from several non-profits. We first asked Enmax for data on limiters and utility disconnection in March and were told it was a privacy issue.

Then, after CBC Calgary emailed city council members for comment, Enmax sent a series of bullet points about the situation. 

'Dynamic' criteria

It said households on limiters represent less than one per cent of residential accounts and that the total is down 28 per cent since last year. But it won't provide the total numbers and won't say how many residential accounts it has.

Enmax also said it has "so far come to solutions for 55 per cent of the households on load limiters to continue their flow of electricity." But it did not provide a timeframe for the figure or indicate what happened to the rest.

The company said it and all energy providers install limiters and disconnect households based on provincial regulations.

"The criteria is dynamic and depends on the length of time the account has been in arrears and whether a payment arrangement is being made," reads a brief statement, adding it is committed to working with customers who are concerned about their ability to pay. 

Council weighs in

Enmax is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary. Council has closed-door meetings with the board of directors four times a year. There is a public meeting coming up in June. When CBC Calgary sent an email to each member of council seeking their perspective, nine declined to comment or didn't respond.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek. (Fritzology Inc.)

Mayor Jyoti Gondek and councillors Courtney Walcott, Evan Spencer and Mian all said they will be pushing Enmax for more information on this at the June meeting.

Walcott said this is an issue that's not going away. Climate change will continue to drive up prices, including for energy, and lawmakers need to know how those on a tight budget are affected.

"Sometimes we leave energy poverty until the crisis hits. So we got to start talking about it real early so that we're proactive instead of reactive, because we never react fast enough," he said.

Gondek said many on council are concerned about the possibility of people getting disconnected now, especially coming out of the pandemic.

"It's been an incredibly tough economic time for everyone. So we are hoping that the response we get from Enmax is one where there's compassion," she said.

"Eroding trust in governance in general is a problem that we all share," added Coun. Spencer of Ward 12. "Addressing that and moving in the right direction needs to be a priority for anyone in that space for the benefit of all in the long term."

Others on council were quick to defend Enmax. 

Calgary Ward 10 councillor, Andre Chabot. (Fritzology Inc.)

Coun. Andre Chabot says Enmax needs to ensure bills are being paid.

"Ultimately, people need to make sure … Enmax is aware of their particular situation, and I believe that Enmax will do the best they can to try and provide the best service and be as accommodating as possible."

Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong said it's important to understand the limited role council plays relative to Enmax. 

"As a shareholder during their governance process — so during its annual meetings and quarterly reports — we are entitled to ask questions," he said. "But one of the things we don't have the right to do is … direct the director of operations, including to the degree that you might call transparency here."

'People feel like just giving up'

Outside of city hall, many just want help. 

The pandemic has been difficult for so many people, says Calgarian Michelle Rozon, who has first-hand experience.

She needs an industrial sewing machine to run her home-based seamstress and upholstery business — but business slowed during the pandemic and she couldn't pay her utility bill.

Enmax threatened Rozon with a load limiter — which would prevent her from working. One day she even intercepted a technician about to install one. She says she convinced him not to after showing him proof she'd made a payment that day. 

But she is still behind on payments by about $500.

"To even get a one-time [relief] where I could just start fresh," she said. "I don't know what that would look like, but, anything would be better than nothing at this point … it really, honestly, makes people feel like just giving up."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to safety on Calgary Transit. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

Series produced by Elise Stolte

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