But Hydro and other critics of the plan say the Crown utility has no business deciding who's poor or not their only business is keeping the lights on and houses warm.
The matter is now before a Public Utilities Board panel as it hears testimony on Hydro's 2010-12 general rate application and its plans to build more northern dams to generate and export more hydroelectric power to the United States. Hydro is asking for a 2.9 per cent rate increase for 2011. The PUB already approved an interim 2010 rate hike of 2.8 per cent.
The issue of a low-income affordability program has largely flown under the radar in Manitoba but has already been addressed in many U.S. states and in Nova Scotia and Ontario.
"I don't think the Public Utilities Board should be placed in a position of having to decide public policy," said Graham Starmer, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce. "We'd rather have a legislated solution to this, not a decision by a semi-judicial, non-elected body."
The support for a low-income affordability program comes from Time to Respect Earth's Ecosystems TREE and the Green Action Centre, formerly Resource Conservation Manitoba. They are intervenors in the PUB hearing.
Spokesman Peter Miller said the groups have recruited Boston advocacy lawyer Roger Colton to argue their case here. Colton is regarded as an expert in low-income utility programs and has lobbied for these programs in the U.S. and Canada for about 25 years. He appears before the PUB in about two months.
"In the time I've been doing this, more than half the states have adopted low-income programs," Colton said. "They learn that the more affordable these services are, the more competitive the community is."
Colton said a low-income affordability program would help Hydro's bottom line, as part of its business is chasing down people who can't afford to pay their bills. Those resources could instead go towards a low-income program.
Miller said Hydro, perhaps with the input of the province, should set a six per cent cap on how much of its income a poor family spends on electricity.
Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the utility is against such a plan because it believes low rates should be available to every household.
He said an assistance program is available through the Power Smart program to help low-income households insulate their homes and through a program, administered by the Salvation Army to help poor people pay their hydro bill. "Traditionally, looking after the needs of low-income people is the job of the government," Schneider said.
Starmer said the risk of PUB ordering Hydro to establish a low-income affordability program is that other assistance programs offered by the province could be cut.
He said the chambers of commerce has scheduled a meeting with Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk and Family Services and Consumer Affairs Minister Gord Mackintosh to discuss tightening the The Public Utilities Board Act so the PUB doesn't veer into policy issues that should be the jurisdiction of the legislature.
Starmer said the legislation is unclear on how much the board, appointed by government, can take social policy considerations into account when setting rate increases.