Like other electricity consumers in Nova Scotia, customers of the Berwick Electric Commission (BEC) will likely soon be paying more for their power. But unlike the other 98 per cent of Nova Scotians who are customers of Nova Scotia Power Inc., they are investing those increases in a home-grown and home-owned product.
At their Jan. 10 meeting, BEC commissioners voted to seek a 2.5 per cent rate increase to cover the higher costs associated with purchasing power from NSPI, which recently had a 3.3 per cent increase approved by the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board. Berwick Electric purchases approximately 70 per cent of its power from the provincial utility while generating the remainder of the town’s electric load.
Despite the increase, BEC customers are still paying less for electricity than customers of the NSPI monopoly. Not a lot less, but in these days of ever-increasing costs, every bit counts.
The privately owned electric utility is nearing its 100th anniversary. Berwick has operated a hydroelectric generating system since the 1920s, prior to its incorporation as a town in 1923. Around 1920, Berwick acquired a property in Factorydale and converted an Easson-owned millpond to a hydro headpond. Since then, a series of land acquisitions and technological upgrades to its infrastructure has kept BEC a going concern.
Today, the BEC is one of only six municipally-owned and operated electric utilities in the province of Nova Scotia. Along with Antigonish, Canso, Lunenburg, Mahone Bay and Riverport, it is a founding member of the Municipal Electric Utilities of Nova Scotia Cooperative Limited, established in 1997. Like Berwick, each of these utilities is an independent supplier of electric energy within its specific territory and owns and operates its own distribution system.
While there are fewer independent electric suppliers than in years past, there is a valid case for maintaining those that continue to function and show a profit, especially if they have the infrastructure to generate and sell power, as does Berwick Electric. It also has the potential to earn revenue through sales for service agreements to other municipal units.
Berwick Electric’s revenues spared town residents from a tax hike in 2012, when council voted to take a repayable dividend of $100,000 from the utility to cover budget shortfalls. Without that resource, that course of action would not have been possible.
Managing and growing a municipally-owned utility may be a challenge, especially in this era of rising costs, but it does provide a measure of control and opportunity for those municipalities that willing and able to make the investment.