Manitoba ratepayers tell Public Utilities Board to ease hydro rate shock

The Public Utilities Board is getting some high-wattage pushback on electricity rate increases.

Manitoba Hydro asking for multi-year increases of 7.9%

Manitoba Hydro is asking for a 7.9 per cent rate increase in April. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

The Public Utilities Board is getting some high-wattage pushback on electricity rate increases.

One by one, a panel of ratepayers, organized by the Public Interest Law Centre for the Consumers Coalition, stepped forward at a Public Utilities Board hearing Friday and zapped the annual 7.9 per cent rate increases Manitoba Hydro wants over the next six years.

"Where is this money going?" farmer Dan Mazier asked. "We are trusting Manitoba Hydro. How are we going to follow this money?"

Manitoba Hydro has indicated it plans to seek annual increases of 7.9 per cent until 2023-24. If they are allowed, the successive increases will raise current rates by close to 60 per cent, which means a $1,000 Hydro bill would reach almost $1,600 in 2023-24.

The utility is mired in debt and faces steep cost overruns on its Keeyask dam project and the Bipole III transmission line.

Manitoba Hydro chair Sandy Riley has said the Crown corporation is in dire straits, with a fiscal disaster in its future unless it gets big rate increases for several years.

At the hearing Friday into the request for a 7.9 per cent increase this April, Mazier asked the board to allow lower rate increases for a longer period of time, as opposed to sharp hikes in power bills.

Mazier, who farms in Elton, Man., north of Brandon, has both solar and geothermal systems on his property but still pays several thousand dollars in electricity bills.

They are just so secret.- Gordon Barton

"This is too fast of a rate increase for what I see in agriculture," Mazier, who is also president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers, told the board.

Fears hike could hurt business

Mazier said the multi-year 7.9 per cent increases are "pretty concerning."

"This is going to put us in a less competitive situation quicker," Mazier told the board.

Mazier also asked the PUB to find a way to improve transparency at Manitoba Hydro in the wake of massive cost overruns on big projects.

The proposed hike isn't going over well with some local business owners either, said Jonathan Alward.

"Our members have made it clear that rate increases of 7.9 per cent annually would severely impact their businesses and employees," Alward, provincial affairs director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told the board.

The CFIB surveyed its 4,800 members in Manitoba.

Alward said 29 per cent of small business owners who responded said that kind of rate hike would cause them to put future hiring plans on hold. Eighteen per cent said they would reduce their staff numbers.

'Everything is going up'

The PUB also heard from Rebecca Trudeau, who works two jobs, including one at a Winnipeg not-for-profit organization.

Trudeau lives in an apartment with a roommate and told the board she lives paycheque to paycheque and has significant student loans to pay off.

A big rate hike would have a significant impact on her disposable income, she said.

"It would definitely have an impact on me in terms of savings.… Everything is going up except my income," Trudeau said.

Trudeau told the PUB she would like to see an income sliding scale connected to the proposed rate increases.

Gordon Barton, a former Winnipeg police officer, told the PUB his current  $3,000 electricity bill eats up just under four per cent of his income.

If that goes up 7.9 per cent for several years "it would be a disaster," he said.

"If Hydro is going to do something, the rates should come in nice and slow," Barton told the board. "At least I would know what would happen and I can adjust as I go along."

'Outrageous' ask

Big rate increases might force him to consider changing where he lives, he said.

"What they are asking for is outrageous," said Barton, who lives in Anola. "I personally don't believe in what they are asking for."

Barton said he is skeptical about how Hydro is managed and it should do much more information-sharing with the public.

"They are just so secret."

The PUB will hear more submissions Friday, part of a series of hearings through to mid-February.


Sean Kavanagh

Former CBC reporter

Sean Kavanagh was a reporter for CBC Manitoba from 2003-21. He covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections.