Current provincial energy regulations allow businesses and homeowners in British Columbia to purchase natural gas from a select few competitive retailers. However, they have no option but to buy electricity from their designated regulated electric utility—BC Hydro, FortisBC, or the City of Westminster.
To understand why British Columbia’s energy market is so tightly regulated, it’s necessary to look to the province’s history.
The cities of Vancouver and Victoria benefited from early efforts at introducing electrical power and natural gas lighting. The first gas street lamp was illuminated in Victoria in 1862, courtesy of the Victoria Gas Company. It was the city’s first tentative steps towards electrification, which it would achieve some twenty years later.
Meanwhile, Vancouver was not far behind, with the first electric lights brightening the night sky in 1887, despite the city burning down only a year prior. The city’s early use of electricity wasn’t limited to lighting applications, either—within six months of the first electric street lamp, the city’s New-Advertiser newspaper announced the first edition printed using an electric printing press.
The various electric and natural gas companies that powered these cities into the modern era ran into a variety of financial challenges. They were eventually consolidated into BC Electric, ensuring that Vancouver and communities throughout Vancouver Island enjoyed the benefits of a reliable and unified electricity system.
But while the extreme southwest corner of British Columbia was home to an extensive energy infrastructure, this was not true elsewhere.
With many communities lacking electricity by the mid-20th century, the province took legislative steps to remedy the issue.
While Vancouver and Victoria had entered into the age of electricity by the 1880s, this was not the case for much of the province 60 years later. In large part, this was due to the economic impossibility of developing energy infrastructure in regions of low population density. Even today, 70% of British Columbia has population density well under 1 person per square kilometer—while still managing to contain nearly 240,000 inhabitants.
In 1945, Premier John Hart established the BC Power Commission, via the Electric Power Act. The Power Commission’s mandate was to consolidate smaller electric utilities throughout the province, and to install the infrastructure necessary to provide service to more remote communities that still lacked electric power. By the late 1950s, the Power Commission had purchased and amalgamated nearly every electric company in the province, save for BC Electric.
In 1961, legislation was passed which converted BC Electric from a private company to a regulated utility. The operations of the company and the Power Commission were combined into a single crown corporation, BC Hydro.
Today, BC Hydro delivers electricity to approximately 90% of the province. FortisBC is British Columbia’s sole regulated natural gas provider, and is responsible for delivering electricity to most of the population not served by BC Hydro.
In considering the province’s history, it is readily obvious that current regulatory controls on British Columbia’s energy markets are largely a result of the need to establish infrastructure that serves even the farthest flung residents. But in recent years, regulations have slowly been loosened. Today, it is now possible to purchase natural gas from competitive retailers. The same may be true for electricity in the near future.