Critics say BC Hydro's upcoming seven-per-cent rate hike could have been avoided if the Crown corporation had simply worked on paying down its debt rather than deferring it to the future.

Beginning in April, electricity customers will be paying an extra four per cent on their bills, plus an increased Deferral Account Rate Rider surcharge, thanks to a decision from the BC Utilities Commission. The energy regulator demanded that Hydro double the surcharge so it could pay down about $2.2 billion in debt built up over years of infrastructure expenses that were deferred into special accounts.

NDP energy critic John Horgan says that Hydro should have started reducing its debt years ago, before it became too big to bear.

"This money has already been spent by the BC Liberals. Taxpayers now have to pick up the bill," he told CTV News.

The province was pushing for just a four-per-cent rate increase, but the BCUC ruled that Hydro's debt was just too high.

In October, provincial Auditor General John Doyle expressed alarm over BC Hydro's practice of deferring debt -- a technique known as rate-regulated accounting. According to government estimates, debt from deferred expenses could rise to $5 billion by 2017.

Energy Minister Rich Coleman says he will continue to push for Hydro rates to go down this summer.

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Jon Woodward