So-called “energy poverty” is getting worse in rural Ontario, a Global News investigation has found, with even small households paying hundreds of dollars a month to keep the lights on.
Officials, residents and experts are all sounding the alarm after electricity rates in the province rose 100 per cent in the past decade.
A range of factors are fueling the increases, including subsidies for clean energy, dealing with aging nuclear plants and maintaining and modernizing the province’s vast transmission and distribution system. But the problem is especially acute in rural Ontario, where steep delivery charges are the norm.
“The worst affected are customers in rural Ontario,” said energy analyst Tom Adams. “Compared to the ordinary urban household, the delivery charge alone is usually two to three times higher.”
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Fay Knox knows what it’s like to live off the grid. Unable to cope with rising power rates, she has been disconnected twice because she couldn’t pay her hydro bills.
She lives by herself in a small house in the Eastern Ontario town of Lancaster, but her electricity bills run into the hundreds of dollars.
For the month of March 2016, it was $299.67. Knox, who receives a disability pension, says she simply can’t afford to keep her lights on.
“I could pay my hydro bill (20 years ago),” she said. “I was a single mother making $4 an hour raising two boys. Paying a mortgage. And you could pay your hydro. You can’t pay your hydro anymore.”
Ontario Progressive Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski said he was recently speaking to a volunteer at a food bank in the Ottawa Valley town of Eganville, who told him that most of the food bank’s new clients were people who had to make a choice between paying their hydro bill and avoiding a disconnection fee, or buying groceries.
“So they chose to maintain their hydro, but were now becoming clients of the food bank.”
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Jennifer Shaver is in a similar situation to Knox. She lives in Oxford Station, just outside of Ottawa, and she is on a constant crusade to cut her power consumption.
She shuts off her water heater during the day, hangs out all her laundry and her air conditioner is never turned on. The dishwasher only runs at night.
Despite her strict conservation measures, her monthly bills have been creeping up to more than $300 a month.
“With what’s been happening with Hydro we could be paying $500 a month easy here,” Shaver told Global News. “And that’s not going to work for us. And I don’t know what to do.”
She said she regularly falls behind on paying the bills, and a hydro crew recently disconnected power to her house. Her parents lent her the money to pay the $600 bill, and her power was eventually restored.
Government ‘taking significant steps’
Ontario’s new Energy Minister, Glenn Thibeault, said he’s still learning the ropes in his new job, so the man who used to hold the position, Bob Chiarelli, addressed the issue instead.
He expressed some sympathy to the plight of rural hydro customers.
“Yes there are pressures on rural customers,” Chiarelli acknowledged. “We are taking some significant steps to ameliorate those and we’ve made some significant progress.”
That help includes the Ontario Electricity Support Program that offers low-income Ontarians a monthly credit on their bill of up to $50. There is also the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), that will provide up to $600 in emergency assistance to people who are struggling to pay their hydro bill.
But energy analyst Adams says despite this help, a crisis is brewing.
“Electricity costs are becoming a housing problem. Some people are saying now they can’t afford to stay in their home because of their power bills. I find that … shocking.”
How many people are living in the dark?
Hydro One is the utility that delivers electricity to much of rural Ontario. The company refused to provide the number of people who have been disconnected each year for the past 10 years because of non-payment of their bills.
A similar request for the number of notices sent out to customers warning them their power could be disconnected because of arrears was also denied. Laura Cooke, Hydro One’s Senior Vice-President of Customer and Corporate Relations, did tell Global News she has reviewed the data and she did not see an “appreciable difference” in the year-over-year numbers.
But Cooke refused to provide data to back up that assertion.
“I am shocked that they would not divulge that information,” PC energy critic Yakabuski told Global News. “That is now being cloaked in a veil of secrecy when it comes to how they do business.”
However, there is some publicly available data that indicate the problem may be getting worse. In a two-year period (2013-2014) the number of people who applied to the LEAP program for financial help to pay their electricity bill shot up by 20 per cent. The amount of money paid out by the fund also jumped by the same amount.
Officials in a number of rural townships said the number of people seeking help through the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative is on the rise. Renfrew County, west of Ottawa, doubled the amount of assistance it handed out last year.
Meanwhile, Fay Knox is once again hundreds of dollars behind on her hydro bill. The stress of not knowing when she will be living in the dark is taking its toll.
“My nerves are shot. Blood pressure is through the roof. I don’t think in Ontario that we should have to live like this. And it’s getting worse.”
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