Hydro no longer eyeing 6.5 per cent hike to begin paying for Muskrat Falls

A proposed rate increase to start paying for Muskrat Falls next year has been taken off the table after much public criticism.

Hydro president hears concerns from protest organizers, province's seniors advocate during PUB hearing

The Muskrat Falls spillway and intake on the Churchill River, near Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. (Nalcor Energy)

A proposed rate increase to start paying for Muskrat Falls next year has been yanked after much public criticism.

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro had kicked around the idea of a 6.5 per cent increase for ratepayers to set aside money now to ease the rate shock when the massive hydroelectric project comes online in 2020.

After a hearing wrapped at the Public Utilities Board on Thursday, Hydro president Jim Haynes said that idea has been quashed.

NL Hydro president Jim Haynes says he understands the concerns of the public when it comes to not being able to pay electricity bills. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

"That's all withdrawn. That's not on the table anymore," he said. "What we're at now is just a cost recovery exercise, from the point of view that we can pay our bills."

The only increase Hydro is seeking from the Public Utilities Board is a 1.2 per cent increase for Jan. 1, 2019.

Protest organizers give formal presentation

Meanwhile, three people who have been leading demonstrations outside the PUB put down their protest signs and stepped inside the hearing room on Thursday.

Keith Fillier, James Murphy and Lori Moore gave presentations to the board on behalf of the public, along with the province's seniors advocate, Dr. Suzanne Brake.

They spoke of the unfairness to ratepayers and taxpayers in the province, to have to pay out of pocket for a project they never had a chance to vote for.

Keith Fillier, left, James Murphy and Lori Moore gave presentations to the Public Utilities Board on behalf of the public. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

"It was good to get up and look at some of the utility representatives and the board members, and look them in the eye and be able to speak the truth as we know it about what we forecast it is going to be like to live in Newfoundland," Fillier said afterwards.

Murphy and Hillier called for a reinstatement of power to the PUB.

Provincial legislation in 2012 stripped some of the independent authority away from the board, after a report that said the PUB didn't have enough information to determine if Muskrat Falls was the best option.

The legislation allowed the project to get the green light, and critics say it handcuffed the board.

Murphy and Hillier both asked the board not to approve any further rate increases until its power was restored, and the board was in a position to have input on the best way forward.

Haynes hears complaints

At the back of the room, Jim Haynes sat and listened to all four speakers.

"The presentations made by the panel this morning are real," he said afterwards. "We are very concerned about people's ability to pay."

Haynes said all the factors that go into setting rates are under consideration by the rate mitigation committee, a group of government and utility representatives seeking the best way forward.

"There's a bunch of things being looked at, but it's all a work in progress," he said.

One thing is for sure, however.

When NL Hydro comes forward with its next rate application, there has to be a plan in place — something better than the one it kicked around this summer.

"We will need to have a considered plan, and that was always the case," Haynes said. 

"What we thought we would do is set aside some money, and we heard loudly from the panel and the intervenors of the board that that's a non-starter."

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