February 16, 2017 2:09 pm
Updated: February 16, 2017 10:55 pm

Ontario energy minister calls on utility companies to end winter disconnections

WATCH ABOVE: Ontario energy minister issues letter on winter hydro connections after Global News story. Alan Carter has more.

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Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault says an interview with Global News prompted him to take action to stop electricity companies from disconnecting customers during the winter.

“Yesterday, when we were talking about this, I realized that, you know what? It’s time that we don’t play political games anymore,” Thibeault said.

In a letter sent Thursday, Thibeault asked CEOs of the province’s 70 electricity companies to begin “immediately and voluntarily implementing a policy of ending residential disconnections during the winter.”

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The letter goes on to say that at no point and under no circumstance, should customers be “put at risk over their electricity bills.”

READ MORE: Brown and Horwath demand immediate end to winter hydro disconnections

The letter also acknowledges that the government’s efforts to clean up the province’s electricity system over the past decade have come at a price far too high for many families in Ontario.

“The transformation of our system was for the better, but it has come at a cost that presents a challenge to many Ontarians,” Thibeault said in the letter.

“Local distributors know this well – interacting directly with customers in your communities across the province.”

VIDEO: Patrick Brown demands government to end winter hydro disconnections

Thibeault’s call to end winter disconnections comes following a series of Global News reports that revealed many companies in Ontario continue to shut off power to customers’ homes during even the coldest winter months.

In certain cases – like in Thibeault’s home riding of Sudbury – companies admit they’ll cut off a customer’s power until the temperature drops below -20 C.

Wendy Watson, a spokesperson for Greater Sudbury Hydro, confirmed the company received the letter today and will comply with Thibeault’s request.

“We have indeed received the letter from Minister Thibeault requesting that we immediately end residential winter disconnects,” said Watson. “We are complying with his request, effective today.”

Meanwhile, Westario Power, a municipally-owned utility company servicing 15 communities in Grey and Bruce counties, refused to acknowledge whether the company received Thibeault’s letter.

A company spokesperson also declined the opportunity to answer questions on whether Westario Power plans to comply with the minister’s request.

“At this time our CEO is out of the office and will not be returning until next week,” said Tracey Vanness, a spokesperson for Westario Power.

WATCH: Westario Power disconnects grandmother and single mom

Speaking Thursday afternoon on AM980 London’s the Andrew Lawton Show, Thibeault accepted that rising energy rates are contributing to disconnects, adding that his government is looking at further action to stop or slow down the increases.

“I know we can do more,” Thibeault told Lawton. “All the low-hanging fruit has been done in trying to reduce rates, and so now I’m looking at everything. Like, everything is on the table within reason to try and find ways that we can make it lower for those who are still living in the city–some families living in London, for example, will be having a hard time, you know, finding a way to pay that bill, and I also know that’s true for many folks out in the rural part.”

LISTEN: Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault discusses winter hydro disconnections with AM980 London’s Andrew Lawton 

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Both Andrea Horwath and Patrick Brown, leaders of the NDP and Progressive Conservatives, demanded as recently as last week that Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal government put an end to winter disconnections.

READ MORE: Ontario Energy Minister says relief from winter disconnections won’t come this year

They called on the government to either put forward legislation to end disconnections immediately or direct the province’s energy regulator to stop companies from cutting people off in the winter. “I don’t want more delays,” said Brown.

“I’m calling on the government, calling on the minister, calling on this Liberal Party to finally do the right thing on Hydro.”

Thibeault also sent letters to the NDP and Conservative energy critics asking for their support on Bill 27 – a piece of legislation that could end winter disconnections for good.

VIDEO: Andrea Horwath says legislation to prevent hydro disconnections in winter should be expedited

Bill 27, or the Burden Reduction Act, is a 158-page omnibus Bill that has been before the Ontario Legislature since June.

Once passed, the Bill will give the Ontario Energy Board the authority to decide when electricity companies can and cannot cut off a customer’s power for non-payment.

The PCs, who say they support the Bill, say the government is stalling and playing politics with winter disconnections.

READ MORE: Ontario utilities continue to threaten disconnection during winter

Horwath, whose party opposes Bill 27, believes winter disconnections should be handled separately – and not as a part of a massive omnibus Bill.

“When it comes to something as simple as a moratorium on ending Hydro One and other utilities from shutting off the hydro to people in the winter months, that has to be dealt with separately,” Horwath said.

WATCH: Hydro customer threatened with disconnection after missing 1 payment. Sean O’Shea reports.

Opposition says letter “changes nothing”

The NDP and PCs say Thibeault’s attempt to end winter disconnections through voluntary measures isn’t good enough. Both parties say Thibeault needs to start addressing the concerns many families are facing when it comes to rising energy costs..

“Today’s letter by Minister Thibeault requesting a voluntary end to winter disconnections by [utility companies] changes nothing,” Horwath said.

WATCH: Brantford Power under investigation by Ontario Energy Board

Horwath says that when Ontario’s Legislature returns to business next Tuesday she’ll be urging the government to approve a permanent solution to end winter disconnections in Ontario.

“I’ll be pushing to immediately remove the hydro disconnections portion of Bill 27 so that all parties can quickly pass it,” Horwath said. “This government should be offering real solutions instead of allowing vulnerable families to freeze in the dark of an Ontario winter.”

Read the full letter here:

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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