Worried about Muskrat Falls increasing your power bills? You're not alone

People in Newfoundland and Labrador are worried about increases to their power bills following a recent announcement regarding the Muskrat Falls project.

For some, increases in power rates could mean having to leave the province

Don Hutchens adjusts his home heating by remote control. He said that installing a mini-split has reduced his monthly heating bill. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Homeowners and tenants alike are concerned about oppressive power bills in the wake of a long-awaited report on the struggle to keep electricity rates affordable in the post-Muskrat Falls era.

Monday's government announcement on the Public Utilities Board rate mitigation review revealed a new financing deal between the province and feds that officials say will save Newfoundland and Labrador millions.

But it offered little clarity as to how those living in N.L. will afford home heating costs.

Muskrat Falls is projected to offer power to the province in late 2020 at nearly double the current rates — a possibility on the minds of many who pay for home heating in N.L, including Don Hutchens, a St. John's-area resident whose home uses electric heat.

"I think we're in for an awful shock," Hutchens said.

Although Premier Dwight Ball has made repeated commitments that the people of N.L. would not bear the burden of either higher electricity rates or taxes, he hasn't yet delivered a clear plan for overcoming the project's financial dilemmas. 

Anticipating a rise in prices, Hutchens had a mini-split heat pump installed in his home. Although it has an installation fee, he said it can reduce the cost of monthly heating bills.

"I'm consuming about 35 percent less electricity in the last four months versus the same four months last year," he said, which ultimately saves him $100 to $200 a month during the winter.

Hutchens' mini-split heater, installed to reduce power costs. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Hutchens has a unique perspective on Muskrat Falls. After a 32-year career as an engineer in project management in the field of public utilities, he said he's pessimistic about the future price of electricity in his home province – and that he believes that tax increases over the next few years are likely to occur.

"The taxpayers are going to pay for it, down the line. Our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to be paying dearly for this mistake," Hutchens said.

"Somebody's got to pay for it. The cost is spent. It's done. So either the rate payer, or the taxpayer, or the fairy godmother [will pay for it]."

Referencing his own career in public utilities, he said he had a hard time imagining how a project's cost could expand as much as it has.

"If I had a project double in its capital cost ... I mean, people would be shot, tarred, and feathered. There's just no forgiveness."

Renters worried about their future

Sherwin Flight stands in front of a snowbank. He's wearing a blue baseball hat and a black winter coat.
Sherwin Flight is the administrator of a Facebook group dedicated to tenants and landlords. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Sherwin Flight, the administrator of a Facebook support group for tenants and landlords, said that members of the group are swapping fears over rate increases.

"I think a lot of people are worried and anxious," he said.

"They're having trouble paying power bills already. For some people, it's not a matter of juggling some things around. There's no way that they'll be able to do it," he said.

Flight said that several members of the group have discussed leaving the province if the price of electricity exceeds their financial means.

"There's some people with kids and even some people without kids that just say that if they were to live elsewhere they would have more of their income to spend and they wouldn't be struggling as much," he said.

"There's a lot of talk about having to leave Newfoundland."

One topic of concern in the group, Flight said, is a landlord's ability to evict immediately if the power in a unit gets disconnected due to a failure to pay utility bills. With the idea of power rates increasing, some members are anxious about being displaced.

"There's only so many corners that you can cut," he said. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Here and Now