2-tier electricity, many consequences – Part 2: Smoke and mirrors

In part 2 we examine the link between two tier hydro and Valemount’s notorious wood smoke problem; the community boasts the worst air quality in the province on average.

by Andru McCracken


Jeff Jewett, the owner of Bikes and Bites is building a house in Valemount, but choosing a heating system for his new place is causing him no small amount of duress. /ANDRU MCCRACKEN

Cynthia Piper was on council in 2008 when BC Hydro announced their new two tier system to the Valemount Village council.  Piper recalls platitudes from the presenters who suggested that in Vancouver and Valemount electricity usage was about the same.

Piper had just converted to electric heat from oil.

“I was just livid,” said Piper. “I put in hydro because it was cheaper, three months later, BC Hydro put their rates up,” she said. “I got a hydro bill for $1300. I said, ‘Not in this lifetime.’”

At that time Piper second-guessed the claim that two tiers would be good for the environment, since the new rates seemed to cause people to turn to heating with fossil fuels and wood.

“It’s just absolutely insane,” said Piper. “People are burning wood, just for the fact that hydro is so expensive.”

Piper said she’d love to have access to natural gas, but it’s not available.

She couldn’t believe BC Hydro would design a two tier program, when electricity demand varies so much across the province, from home heating to plugging in vehicles.

Kiba and Alex Dempsey felt the pinch of two tier hydro rates when they moved into Valemount from Tete Jaune a few years ago.

“When we first moved here, our house was 100% electric heat. We didn’t realize until the winter time we were paying $3,300 a year for electric only,” said Kiba.

In a bid to keep their heating bill down, the family lowered the thermostat and donned sweaters, an energy saving move advocated by BC Hydro, but even with the temperature in the bedrooms dipping to 12 degrees Celsius at night, the electric bill was unaffordable.

Both Alex and husband Kiba are IT professionals, but they found the cost of electricity out of sight.

They did the math and soon realized that getting an efficient wood stove, an Apex Blaze King with a catalytic converter would pay for itself in four years. It was an $11,000 investment.

“We couldn’t afford it,” said Kiba.  “Now in four years we’ll be paying $200 a year less on our [expenses].”

“Instead of $319 per month we are paying $100 per month,” said Alex.

Kiba said they chose an efficient model out of concern for Valemount’s air quality and the environment.

“If we had geothermal we would have gone for that even if it was bit more,” he said.

Robert Hoskins is a retired RCMP officer and like many in Valemount he lives on a fixed income and does what he can to keep the electric bill low. But despite his efforts, he still pays $198 per month on 12 equal payments, about $2400/year. His electric baseboard heaters are only for backup; his main heat is wood.

“I keep the heaters on minimum. If I go out and there’s no fire going, it goes down to 16 degrees, so they’re only acting as back up heat,” he said. “I don’t want to turn on the lights, so I keep one light on in the evening and it’s an LED light.”

Hoskins said he watches TV, but it’s not huge, and he uses his computer once in a while.

He figures one of the big contributors to the sky high bills is his laundry dryer.

“It seems like a heck of a lot of money for power,” said Hoskins, “and then they talk about burning less wood.”

Hoskins said the amount he spends on power impacts the amount he spends on groceries and how often he goes out.

Electricity from BC Hydro may be expensive, but so are other forms of heat.

Jeff Jewett, the proprietor of Bikes and Bites, is building a home on Valemount’s Main Street, but is currently living in an older home on Cedar St. that heats with propane. Despite his family’s efforts to keep bills down, they’ve gone through $660 of propane over the last six weeks.“It’s crazy,” he said.

His home was built in the 60s.

“We’ve got our furnace cranked down and I watch TV under my blanket,” he said.

Needless to say, Jewett is carefully weighing how he’ll heat his new place.

“I wake up in the middle of the night asking myself what heating should I use?” he said.

He’s considering wood heat and infloor heating.

In part three: We’ll hear from BC Hydro about their plans to reform the system, from the provincial government, from leader of the Green Party Andrew Weaver, and MLA Shirley Bond.

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