Hydro One – Ontario’s largest electricity provider – has reconnected nearly 200 households since launching its Winter Relief Program on Dec. 7. This represents roughly 20 per cent of the 1,400 Hydro One customers currently living without power.
The program is a direct result of Global News’ ongoing investigation into rising energy costs in Ontario.
Although the company’s initial goal of reconnecting everyone within a week of the announcement was not met, Hydro One says its employees are doing everything they can to inform customers of the program.
“It’s been slow,” said Ferio Pugliese, executive vice president of customer care at Hydro One. “We recognize that some of these premises have been vacated, hence the reason we’re doing the field visits.”
Of the roughly 1,400 eligible customers, Hydro One says they have reconnected 179 as of Wednesday.
The reason for the delay, says Pugliese, noting that only Hydro One has only reconnected 20 per cent of eligible customers, is that people have left their homes and some others have been more difficult than others to reach.
In total, the company says it has made more than 2,700 outbound phone calls and performed 681 in-person visits to disconnected properties.
Pugliese says Hydro One will continue to reach out to customers despite the slow pick-up in the program and that his intention is to restore power to every customer who is willing to enter into a new payment agreement for overdue balances.
While Pugliese says Hydro One is not in a position to forgive past debts, the company has been issuing credits to some customers and is waiving typical reconnection fees – including electrical safety inspection fees for customers who’ve been without power for more than six months.
Still, Pugliese says if customers are unable to keep up with their bills, disconnection in the future is not out of the question.
“In six months from now if they can’t make the payments, it could result in another disconnection,” Pugliese said.
Pugliese says Hydro One is currently absorbing the costs associated with the Winter Relief program and that these fees will not be passed on to other customers.
“We believe it`s the right thing to do,” Pugliese said, describing the program in general. “I`m not going to speak on behalf of other [utility providers] but I would say as an entity here with Hydro One, as we transition from a crown corporation to a publicly traded company, the customer is a very important stakeholder to us.”
Pressed on whether the company’s Winter Relief program is intended to quiet opposition to further privatization of Hydro One, Pugliese said people are free to interpret this decision as they choose.
“We’ve been given the responsibility to responsibly run a company and it’s a company that has 1.8 million customers,” Publiese said. “They require support, they require response, and that’s in essence what we’ve been contracted to do and it’s what we’re going to deliver.”
A ‘happy Christmas’
For Suzanne Eddy, a heavy-duty mechanic and mother of two from Perth, Ont., Hydro One’s Winter Relief Program couldn’t have come at a better time.
“There’s no spirit, there’s no lights, there’s no tree, there’s no decorations,” said Eddy, describing her home without power. “You can’t operate the oven and that’s all my daughter wanted for Christmas is a turkey.”
Eddy says she Hydro One cut off her power in May over a $1,900 bill she refused to pay.
Asked to comment on Eddy’s refusal to pay, a Hydro One spokesperson said the company is instead focusing on the Winter Relief Program and helping customers find payment solutions that work for them.
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The dispute, says Eddy, arose after she managed to pay down roughly $6,000 in arrears last winter only to be hit with a $1,900 bill for three months of usage in the spring – an amount which Eddy says she could not possibly have used.
“This is ridiculous,” said Eddy. “Does that mean every three months I’m going to end up with a $2,000 bill? So I just tossed my hands in the air because I was at my financial end.”
When she refused to pay, Hydro One disconnected her services and removed her meter.
She spent the next seven months bathing from plastic shower bags, keeping food cold in a cooler and running a generator once a week to perform tasks like vacuuming and pumping water from her well.
While Eddy says she is grateful to be reconnected, she remains skeptical of both Hydro One and the government’s ability to keep energy costs low.
“I’m concerned that they’re taking us out of the pot and putting us in the frying pan,” Eddy said.
She says she’s also concerned by the lack of choice consumers have when it comes to electricity providers in Ontario – something Ontario’s Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault says he is working on.
“If this is a service, then we should have the right to alter it,” Eddy said. “If you’re overcharging me, I’m going to go take my business elsewhere. I don’t like the way you’re treating me, I’m going to go see another mechanic.”
Eddy admits her refusal to pay Hydro One was not ideal, but says she felt like she had no other choice.
She says the government and Hydro One need to do more to keep prices low and to protect families from being disconnected during the winter – a policy Thibeault hopes passing Bill 27 will soon allow the Ontario Energy Board to carry out.
“We need to brush our teeth. We need water. We need heat,” said Eddy. “These are not privileges. Having a driver’s license is a privilege. You know, this is an essential. We need this to live.”