While Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault settles into his new position, thousands of rural Ontarians struggle to pay their hydro bills – with the threat of disconnection hanging over their heads.
“This is an absolute crisis,” said Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce County. “We’ve talked to people who’ve had medical emergencies. A man who had a heart attack who told our staff it would be financially better for his family if he had passed away rather than survive.”
The man’s rationale? His medical equipment used too much electricity and pushed up the cost of the family’s hydro bill.
Dobbyn said things have become so bad for certain residents that this has evolved from an issue of social housing and affordability to one of public health and safety.
“We have had people admitted to the hospital for a mental health crisis because of their utility bills,” said Dobbyn.
In another example, Dobbyn said a Hydro One official told a woman to “stop her children from playing Xbox, using computers, as well as other ‘toy’ items.”
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But, people are changing their habits. Dobbyn said many of the clients she deals with have become obsessive – shutting off coffee makers as soon as they’ve finished brewing a pot of coffee, not cooking a turkey during the holidays because it uses too much electricity, going to bed early because they’re afraid of turning on the lights.
Ironically, Bruce County is home to one of Ontario’s largest sources of electric power – the Bruce Power nuclear generating station. Providing upwards of 30 per cent of Ontario’s electricity, the nuclear plant does little to keep down the costs for local residents, all of whom pay steep delivery charges to Hydro One to cover the cost of transporting electricity to their rural community.
“You can see the reactor buildings,” said David Shearman, a rural resident of Owen Sound, Ont. “You know, basically a stone’s throw away. And yet we pay really high delivery charges.”
The severity of the situation extends well beyond the struggles of any one particular family. Since January of this year, Bruce and Grey counties have reviewed the applications of more than 200 people seeking assistance with their hydro bills. Some of these individuals are recently unemployed or back at work after an extended period, while others are facing issues such as long-term illness and disability.
Depending on the individual, the need for assistance can vary. Some people require a single, one-time payment to ward off disconnection, while others are habitually behind on their bills and fight just to make it to the deadline when Hydro One can no longer legally cut-off their power during the winter.
“People have to choose what they’ve got to pay,” said Phil Sams, a resident of Bruce County who has already faced one disconnection notice. “Most people choose keeping the lights on and then they starve for the month, which I think is ridiculous.”
Global News has made numerous attempts over the past several weeks to obtain information on the number of rural Ontarians disconnected from their electricity service. Hydro One has refused to release this information, saying its not in their best interest.
Neither the energy minister nor the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) have been able to provide any better answers.
In a lengthy response to this question, spokesperson Karen Evans said customer protection is a priority for the OEB. Yet when it comes to specifics, her response provided very little detail.
“Although we do not factor in the number of utility disconnections into our decisions… the customer is most definitely top-of-mind in OEB rate decisions,” she said
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With files from Shirlee Engel