New numbers released by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) reveal more Ontarians are falling behind on their energy bills, with the amount they owe climbing, and those who can least afford it are falling deeper into debt.
The new data follows an on-going investigation by Global News that has looked at the problem of sky-high hydro bills facing rural Ontarians and the constant threat of disconnection.
According to the data released Wednesday, 567,000 Ontario electricity customer accounts were in arrears at end of 2015, owing $172.5 million, significantly higher than the 472,620 customers who owed roughly $108 million in 2013.
Hydro One, which serves 1.3 million customers primarily in rural Ontario, reported the number of residential customers in arrears increased from 183,934 in 2013 to 225,952 in 2015, an increase of 22.8 per cent. According to the OEB, “arrears” is classified as an account that is 46 days past the payment period.
However, Hydro One has its own set of numbers and argues they tell a different story. The utility counts arrears as 90 days past due and says 75,847 accounts were in “arrears” in 2013, which fell to 51,959 in 2015.
“The OEB numbers are for anyone who is a day late on their account,” said Daffyd Roderick, a spokesperson for Hydro One. “The number we prefer to look are how you’re doing on 90 days arrears. Our arrears are down in 2015, up in 2014. We are seeing a downward trend.”
“Really 90 days tells us that we are engaging with that customer on managing that account. They are getting into the disconnection process, we are reaching out, we are seeing if they need to setup an installment plan. We are making sure that programs are available to them through us and through the Ontario Energy Board.”
The OEB data shows Hydro One’s total amount of ‘write offs’ for eligible low income customer accounts jumped from $327,230 in 2013 to $1,798,531 in 2015, a 450 per cent increase in the utility’s write off totals in those two years.
Here is a look at some examples of rural electricity distributors
The total amount owing for Hydro One customers behind on their energy bills rose from nearly $54 million in 2013 to $105.5 million in 2015, according to the OEB. The average amount owing for people in arrears was $292 in 2013 and $467 in 2015, representing a 60 per cent increase.
Among eligible low income customers, the average amount customers were in arrears in 2013 was $665, while the same group on average owed $1,305 in 2015.
Other electrical distributors in rural parts of Ontario like Westario Power Inc., which serves southern Bruce County and nearby towns, reported an increase in customer arrears from $144,104 in 2013 to $628,362 in 2014 down to $367,821 in 2015. Meanwhile, Toronto Hydro had the second largest number of accounts in arrears, with 60,528 customer owing $13,194,511 in 2015.
Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce and Grey County, said she was “surprised” by the size of the numbers.
“It explains why people are struggling, it explains the frustration and despair and it really explains the anger we’re seeing out in Ontario,” Dobbyn told Global News. “We need to take a breath and really look at this across Ontario, look at those delivery fees for rural Ontario, maybe we spread them out over all of Ontario and not just leave it up to the rural to pay these incredible fees that are more than double for some of the consumption.”
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown called the numbers both “astonishing” and “disappointing.”
“Energy minister Glenn Thibault has said there’s no crisis in energy and we’ve been saying for a long time people can barely afford to put meals on their family’s table,” Brown told Global News. “People are really struggling to pay their hydro bills, there’s a real crisis in Ontario particularly in rural Ontario.”
Global News spoke last month with the recently appointed Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault who was reluctant to describe the high energy costs as a crisis urged residents to conserve more.
“I think it’s important for people to understand there’s a cost associated with getting the power from the generating station,” said Thibeault. “Every time someone turns on the light switch, or plugs something in, there’s a cost associated with that.”
Thibeault was “unavailable” for an interview Wednesday, but a spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy said the Liberal government is still “transforming and rebuilding Ontario’s electricity system” which has come at a cost.
“We launched the Ontario Electricity Support Program and removed the Debt Retirement Charge (DRC) on January 1st of this year; saving the average eligible low-income family $430 annually,” the spokesperson said. “We understand that bills can be even harder for families in rural and remote areas that heat using electricity, First Nations and Métis customers living on reserve, or for individuals who rely upon medically-assistive devices. As a result, we increased the monthly benefit these families can access to up to $75 – or almost $1000 annually including the removal of the DRC. Currently there are almost 120,000 Ontarians who are eligible and receiving this monthly credit on their bills.”
*With files from Sean O’Shea, Eric Sorensen and Jacques Bourbeau