Alberta’s utility deferral program leaves retailers with the tab

Deferring To You: Timothy Tsai at home in Calgary on Nov. 26. Tsai is a developer for PowerBill, and due to the pandemic, spends most of the week, working remotely from home. (Photo by Ethan Allan/The Press)

Alberta’s utility payment deferral program, while helpful to its residents, has left small power retailers to pick up part of the cheque.

“It felt like a huge betrayal because the government said Albertans need help, but they didn’t include us,” said Scott Birkby, co-founder of PowerBill Utility Billing Solutions.

On March 18, the Alberta government implemented the Utility Payment Deferral Program, allowing Albertans to defer their natural gas and electricity bills until June 18.

While this program was intended to ease the financial stress felt by many Albertans during the COVID-19 pandemic, poor planning and implementation strategies caused confusion for both power retailers and their customers.

“It was very stressful, because when the deferral program was started and announced by the government, we only got a short amount of time [to set up the software],” said Timothy Tsai, a software developer at PowerBill.

The short notice left development teams scrambling to build the software necessary to function with the deferral program, all while following unclear guidelines outlined by the government.

“We don’t have any official documentation to follow, so it’s very frustrating because it’s different rules, and different people saying different things,” said Tsai.

During the deferral period, those who opted to take advantage of the program would be immune from disconnection of services or being subject to collection activity, according to the Alberta Utilities Commission’s deferral program manual.

This left the door open for some to abuse the service, letting customers that took advantage of the program, refuse to pay the outstanding balance once the period was over, according to Birkby.

“It’s unfortunate that it forced us to leave customers that were in arrears as customers, knowing that we would most likely lose that money entirely,” said Birkby.

These customers, who already had outstanding balances, would have been dropped for non-payment in March.

But due to the regulations of the program, retailers were restricted from doing so until after the period ended, incurring the cost of their usage the entire time.

“Most customers clearly understood the program and its purpose, but there was definitely a significant number who saw retailers like ourselves, as faceless, nameless corporations who could absorb those losses much better than they could,” said Birkby.

Throughout the pandemic, Albertans have voiced their opinions on social media that larger corporations should do more to help alleviate the stress and financial hurdles during these difficult times.

However, with a team made up of only seven individuals, PowerBill does not have the resources of larger utility retailers, leaving them at risk as they accumulate more costs throughout the deferral and repayment periods of the program.

“As owners, we also have mortgages and bills like everyone else, but we also have to pay our office lease, employee salaries, equipment, and other bills, making the pressure much worse,” said Birkby.

The repayment period of the program spans one year, leaving retailers like PowerBill to cover the costs of the deferred amounts for anytime up until June 18, 2021.

It felt like a huge betrayal because the government said Albertans need help, but they didn’t include us. – Scott Birkby

As the province barrels towards a potential, and stricter, lockdown, the deferral program has the potential to be implemented once again.

While companies like PowerBill now have the advantage of the deferral software already being in place, the possible costs to come, could prove fatal for smaller retailers.

“How can our own government say Albertans need help at a time like this, and then tell everyone they don’t have to pay their power bills, and then immediately tell retailers they still have to pay their bills despite the lack of money coming in?” said Birkby.