Thirteen years ago, on a cold March day in 2008, Bertrand Durelle found his 53-year-old brother unconscious, hypothermic and frostbitten in the home they shared in Baie-Sainte-Anne.
Paul Durelle could not afford to pay his power bill. After six warnings, NB Power cut off his power in February. Bertrand arrived too late. His brother would die in the Miramichi Hospital five days later of organ failure.
Two years earlier, NB Power had put into a place a winter no-disconnect policy but during the winter of Durelle’s death, 610 people had their power disconnected. The province was forced to review and strengthen its policy to stop NB Power from disconnecting people from their power during the winter.
Fast forward to 2021, New Brunswickers like people all over the world have had to weather a pandemic that has slashed already low wages, rendered many of us jobless, and made accessing a home and health care very difficult.
Now, policy experts, out of touch with the realities of many New Brunswickers, are telling us that our public utility should increase our electricity bills. This is what Richard Saillant tells us in the March 17th edition of the Telegraph Journal, in the midst of the coldest week of the winter, so far.
Couched in progressive talk, policy experts tell us that NB Power should increase our electricity bills because the utility is heavily in debt. Others tell us higher prices would disincentivize electricity use and thus lessen our carbon footprint.
Saillant tells us that New Brunswickers pay some of the lowest rates of electricity in the country. If there ever was an argument to keep our public utility public, low rates are it, but some people who don’t have to worry about how they are going to make ends meet each month don’t realize it.
The unimaginative policy solutions being put forward prevent us from having a different and much-needed conversation concerning what to do about the electricity rates that are already too much for many New Brunswickers.
In a province that is home to two billionaire Irvings, policy experts should not be suggesting we can’t afford needs as basic as electricity for everyone. Don’t tell us that we should pay more for electricity because our electricity costs are lower than the rest of the country when what is in our pocket is also lower. These are the same arguments that the Higgs government trots out when it denies there is a housing affordability crisis in the province.
While New Brunswickers may pay less for electricity and housing, we are also home to the country’s lowest median household income, lowest employment level, one of the lowest minimum wages (below the poverty line for full-time workers), inadequate social assistance rates, and a growing population of seniors living on fixed incomes. In a province of 781,476 people, more than 31,400 of our children live in poverty. How are the parents of these children going to pay more for electricity?
New Brunswick also has some of the oldest housing stock in the country. Visit a relatively affordable apartment in Saint John and you will likely find a very drafty and cold apartment and a tenant paying more than they should in electricity bills. How are these tenants going to pay more for electricity? With the extra nickel an hour added this year to the minimum wage so many of them earn?
Increasing power rates have also been proposed as a solution to the climate crisis—to make good environmentalists out of us. Telling people who are the least responsible for the climate crisis that they should bear more of the costs of that crisis is a distraction from the kinds of transformations to our energy, food and transportation systems that need to be made to stave off the crisis. It also makes anti-environmentalists out of people, and with good reason.
Public utilities elsewhere are in fact less expensive for customers, more safe and reliable, and are making a quicker shift to renewable energy.
In New Brunswick, we pay NB Power executives the highest salaries in the province. We expect them to balance the books and figure out energy solutions with such a salary, but they are still stuck on yesterday’s power sources, coal, oil and nuclear. The highest paid public servant on record is NB Power VP Nuclear Brett Plummer. He makes at least $650,000. Former NB Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas previously held the record of top paid public servant, making a salary in the range of $550,000 to $574,999 in 2017. That year, NB Power paid eight directors at least $250,000.
A few people in New Brunswick are making a lot of money to tell us that we need to slow our transition off of coal. Meanwhile, in the past four years, New Brunswick has given $30 million to the nuclear industry. In 2017, the Gallant Liberal government gave $5 million each to two start-up nuclear companies, ARC Nuclear from the US and Moltex Energy from the UK. Earlier this year, the Higgs Progressive Conservative government gave $20 million to ARC Nuclear to develop small modular nuclear reactors when the recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report is cautioning against using nuclear power as a way to confront the climate crisis.
The COVID pandemic should make us pause and rethink the old ways of creating and distributing energy that have kept us stuck on fossil fuels and in poverty.
The Green New Deal has inspired many people across North America to envision a transformation of our economy that addresses the climate crisis and puts an end to rampant inequality. In many cities across the U.S., Green New Deal organizers are working to take their electrical utility out of private hands and into the public’s. In New Brunswick, we are already on our way to the kind of Green New Deal being imagined elsewhere: We have a publicly owned utility that is supposed to work for us.
Would a private, for-profit energy corporation concerned foremost about their bottom line and shareholders have implemented a winter no-disconnect policy like NB Power did in 2006? The people freezing to death in their homes in New York, a city powered by Con Edison, one of America’s largest investor-owned energy corporations, tells us no.
Let’s remind NB Power, our provincial Crown corporation, that their mandate is to generate and distribute safe, clean and reliable energy that does not force any of us to choose between paying our power bill or for food.
Tracy Glynn teaches in the Environment and Society program at St. Thomas University and researches just energy transitions.