BC Hydro is offering help for customers struggling to pay their electricity bills during the coronavirus pandemic with credits and even "payment holidays," the government said Wednesday.
B.C. Premier John Horgan and Energy Minister Bruce Ralston announced the relief in a joint news conference from Vancouver and Victoria.
"For people who have lost their earnings as a result of COVID-19 there are significant challenges ahead," Horgan said.
As part of its payment support during the pandemic, BC Hydro will offer a three-month credit for those who have lost their jobs or are unable to work. This will add up to about $477 in savings and will not need to be repaid.
"Those who have lost their jobs or are unable to work due to COVID-19 shouldn't have to choose between paying their rent or mortgage, and paying their hydro bill," Ralston said.
Since the funds are being applied as credit to an individual's account, it might even last longer than three months, Ralston explained.
Additionally, small businesses forced to shut down because of the virus will be given a three-month payment "holiday." This means for electricity used between April and June, bills will be forgiven.
"This will provide immediate relief to retail stores, restaurants, tourism, the personal services sector and other small businesses that are struggling to keep their workers on payroll ," Ralston said.
BC Hydro will also give the option for payment deferral up to 50 per cent for the next few months for large industrial companies.
Customers will have until the end of June to apply for relief, Ralston said, adding that the application procedure is still being finalized. Applications should be open for residents by the end of next week.
The entire relief program is expected to cost about $90 million.
Ralston also said that Fortis BC and the B.C. Utilities Commission are in discussion about any measures they might take during the pandemic.
Ahead of the news conference, a spokesperson with BC Hydro confirmed that, as of Wednesday, rates would be reduced by one per cent. The utility says the lowered rates are independent of the coronavirus pandemic and are a result of its 2019 fiscal year results and that it applied for a rate reduction last August.
The new rate will result in the average customer saving up to $16 each year on electricity costs. Commercial customers could save up to $715 and industrial customers could save up to $230,000 annually.
"This is the first rate decrease in decades," Ralston said.
Earlier in the month, BC Hydro set up a financial relief program for anyone having trouble paying their electricity bill.
"This provides options such as payment deferrals or flexible payment plans, which will help to spread out the cost of their electricity use into future months," Tanya Fish, a BC Hydro spokesperson, told CTV News Vancouver at the time.
"It just helps to relieve some of that financial burden that some customers may be facing as a result of the outbreak."
Fish said BC Hydro customers may also be able to access more help through the company's existing customer crisis fund, which is available for people who have lost their jobs, are struggling with the loss of a family member or any other life emergency that could make paying bills difficult.
An American Sign Language translation of today's news conference is available on the province's YouTube page.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Jen St. Denis