Energy costs Electric shocker: Power prices set to rise sharply

“Why should I be penalized because I have a disability that keeps me at home?” said Kevin Kinsella, a 45-year-old from Ottawa who has cerebral palsy and no colon or spleen. “It’s three in the afternoon, and I just had a shower because home support workers work nine to five. I have to do a lot of extra laundry because of my disability, and basically I have to do the laundry when I have to do it — quite often, during the day.”

Kinsella said the monthly electricity bill for him and his wife is $300, up from $200 in recent years — and their smart-metering hasn’t even been turned on yet. Living on a disability benefit, he’s already had to make cutbacks.

“What gets hit is on my medical supplies. I stretch things out longer than I should, my skin gets irritated, things like, that,” he said. “And I shouldn’t, but sometimes my food budget gets hit. For the last week of the month, you’re eating almost nothing.”

It’s a predicament faced across the country by people with low or fixed incomes, said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, the national association for people aged 50-plus.

“There are certain kinds of costs that hit fixed-income and low-income people the most, and one of those things is energy costs, which are not discretionary,” she said. “So it means that they are faced with huge costs, no increase in income supplements, and no discretion to turn the heat down.”

Cheap power a thing of the past

Canada’s electricity prices have historically been low — among the cheapest in the 34-member OECD — because the majority of the country’s power comes from hydroelectric plants that were built and paid off years ago.

But those power plants are aging and no longer able to meet the country’s needs, with the National Energy Board predicting power consumption will rise 23 per cent by 2020.

Regardless of fuel type, the new plants being built, plus the copper- and aluminum-heavy transmission lines to reach them, will cost a lot more, for which ratepayers are footing the bill.

The average price for a kilowatt-hour of power in St. John’s, for example, is 11 cents. New electricity from the planned Lower Churchill hydro development will come in at 14.3 ¢/kWh, the provincial government predicts.

The gap is even starker in Quebec, where the current biggest hydro project, a series of dams on the Romaine River north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is anticipated to produce power at a cost of 6.4 ¢/kWh — or more than three times the price of electrons from the province’s currently installed generators.

Add to that Ontario biogas plants that get paid up to 19.5 ¢/kWh and rooftop solar power systems making 80 ¢/kWh, plus a proposal to pay small-scale Nova Scotia wind farms 50 ¢/kWh. A 2009 MIT study found new nuclear plants cost twice as much to build as they did only eight years ago. Coal-fired plants, once a cheap source of energy based on an abundant fuel, cost far more because of emissions restrictions.