Thursday, July 22, 2010

$18 for 68 cents of gas: minimum charges must go

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner under the title "It's time to place the onus on the energy user"; the print version was incorrectly published without the critical first two paragraphs)

Last month I got a rather odd bill from Enbridge. It was for a modest $18.68 (plus tax), but according to the breakdown, I used 68 cents worth of natural gas, for the privilege of receiving which I paid $18. Actual gas was less than 4% of my bill; I paid 26 times more just to be a customer. This can’t be right, can it?

I can explain but not justify this discrepancy. I have an extremely efficient furnace and solar water heating, so we don’t use much gas, especially in summer. But the real reason the bill was so far out of whack is because Enbridge only checks my meter every second month, and estimates for their monthly bills between. Yet despite having had this furnace/heater combination for 4 years, they still can’t estimate right. On the months they guess, they bill me far too much; when they check the meter, the bill is either low or even negative. It seems their system can’t comprehend a conserving customer. If they went to two-month billing like PowerStream, or if their computer got smarter, that problem at least would go away. But it would still leave the problem of minimum billing.

Our gas, electric, and water billing all share a common flaw: a minimum or basic charge you have to pay every month regardless of how much you use. That amount is fixed and mandatory, no matter how much you conserve. As a result, the harder you work to save, the more of your bill is fixed charges. Sure, those who use more pay more, but their customer charge pales next to their consumption fees.

A better, fairer way to bill would be to eliminate customer charges, and raise usage fees slightly to make up for the loss. That way, your bill would simply be a multiple of how much you used, and you’d save more by conserving (or pay more for wasting). When you tank up your car, do you pay a fixed station customer fee on top of the gasoline price? No, those costs are rolled into the price of each litre. So why pay more at home? Although there are infrastructure costs to hook us up, the major bills these days come from upgrading and upsizing our supply to meet growing demand. We must build new power and water treatment plants and drill more gas wells, at great financial and environmental cost. We all end up paying those costs, whether we conserve or waste. And that’s not fair.

Last year Barrie City staff proposed lowering the sliding volume-based water fees and making up for it with higher fixed customer charges. Luckily our Council saw the wisdom in making wasters paying for waste, and kept the sliding rate fee structure. Kudos to them, and let’s see if that same attitude can be used to further lower fixed fees and put the staggering costs of new infrastructure where they belong – on the shoulders of those who use and waste the most water, gas, or electricity.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Note: although writing this column was sparked by the surreal gas bill I received, the conclusion is inspired by conversations with friend and colleague Dr. Peter Bursztyn of Living Green.

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