VICTORIA -- British Columbia's electricity utility is offering a reprieve from bill payments for people and businesses affected financially by the novel coronavirus.

Premier John Horgan announced Wednesday that BC Hydro will offer a three-month credit on power bills for people whose income has been reduced due to COVID-19.

"Residential customers who have lost their jobs will receive a bill credit of three times their average monthly bill," said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, on Wednesday.

"This will add up to around $477 in savings for the average customer. I want to be clear: for residential customers, this bill credit does not have to be repaid."

Additionally, the hydro provider will give a "three-month payment holiday" for small businesses that have been forced to close, Horgan said in a joint announcement with the energy minister.

"Small businesses that have been forced to close due to COVID-19 will have their power bills forgiven for three months for the power used between April and June," Ralston said.

"This will provide immediate relief to retail stores, restaurants, tourism, the personal services sector and other small businesses that are struggling to keep their workers on payroll."

Large industrial customers will be allowed to defer up to 50 per cent of their power bills for the next three months. Repayment will not be due until September.

Hydro rates are also being reduced by one per cent for all customers, effective today, April 1. The reduced rates are the result of BC Hydro's 2019 fiscal results, not the coronavirus pandemic.

"People are out of work and businesses are facing tough choices about whether they can stay open," said Horgan. "Giving people relief on their power bills lets them focus on the essentials, while helping businesses and encouraging critical industry to keep operating."

Customers can apply for credits from the hydro company through BC Hydro's COVID-19 Relief Fund website between April 13 and June 30.

BC Hydro says commercial usage down, residential usage up

The new rate changes come as the COVID-19 pandemic alters the way British Columbians use electricity.

Data provided by BC Hydro shows that residential electricity usage has been roughly nine per cent higher over the last two weeks than it was during the same time period last year.

Interestingly, usage has only been one per cent higher than it was during the same two weeks of 2018, and it has been two per cent lower than it was during 2017. BC Hydro says this data is "normalized for weather," but notes that "factors such as the timing of spring break and the growth in the number of customers influence these year-over-year comparisons."

Energy demand has changed significantly in other ways during the pandemic, BC Hydro said.

Specifically, the utility is seeing evidence of a later-than-usual morning usage peak, which it says is likely the result of some British Columbians not waking up as early because they don't have to commute to school or work.

BC Hydro is also seeing a smaller-than-usual drop-off in electricity usage in the afternoon and an earlier evening peak. The company says the latter finding may be the result of residents cooking dinner earlier because they don't have to commute to get home.

While residential electricity use has grown compared to 2019, commercial electricity use has declined significantly. It has been four per cent lower over the last two weeks than it was during the same time period last year, and it's down nine per cent compared to the same period in 2017 and 2018.

Looking specifically at electricity usage by commercial clients between March 23 and March 27, BC Hydro has seen declines in electricity usage by restaurants (down 31 per cent), hotels (24 per cent) and offices (15 per cent) relative to the week of March 9 to 13, which was before many measures to control the spread of COVID-19 had been widely implemented.