Hydro: Ontario pulls the plug on winter disconnects

Click to play video: 'Winter hydro disconnections now against the law in Ontario'
Winter hydro disconnections now against the law in Ontario
WATCH: After a midnight ultimatum failed, Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault was forced to bring in the legislation. Alan Carter reports. – Feb 22, 2017

After months of pressure to end winter hydro disconnections in Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government has finally passed legislation that will prohibit utility companies from cutting off a customer’s power during the winter.

The Protection of Vulnerable Energy Customers Act, which received unanimous consent Wednesday, grants new, sweeping powers to the Ontario Energy Board to decide when a utility can and cannot disconnect a customer for non-payment.

READ MORE: How much have Ontario hydro bills really gone up?

The legislation comes following an ultimatum delivered Tuesday by Wynne and Ontario’s Energy Minister, Glenn Thibeault, giving the province’s utility companies until  midnight to either change their policies or face the threat of government action.

“I asked all the [utility companies] to comply with the voluntary letter and we almost had all of them,” Thibeault said. “It’s just those that couldn’t do it for one reason or another. And some of them, for example, needed to bring it to their board. So that’s why they couldn’t agree.”
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Of the roughly 70 utility companies in Ontario, Thibeault says he’s aware of only two that were unable to comply with his voluntary request. Thibeault won’t “name and shame” these companies, but says their reasons for not complying with his request are “legitimate.”

WATCH: Toronto senior living winter without hydro. Sean O’Shea reports.

Click to play video: 'Toronto senior living winter without hydro'
Toronto senior living winter without hydro

Following through on it’s threat, the legislation has now passed and utility companies in Ontario will soon be prohibited from cutting off a customer’s power during the winter.

“For those [companies] that were unable to do it, I hope they recognize that the OEB will be coming forward with the license conditions changes to make sure that they’re all acting appropriately to meet the rules and the law of the land,” Thibeault said.

In terms of timing, Thibeault expects the OEB will act swiftly and make sure the necessary changes are in place by Friday.

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“I don’t want to put any pressure on the OEB, but this is something that the Legislature has spoken on.  All parties were in agreement, with unanimous consent on this, and I’d like to see the OEB act on this as quickly as possible,” said Thibeault.

WATCH: Ontario Energy Minister calls on companies to end winter disconnections

Click to play video: 'Ontario energy minister issues letter on winter hydro connections after Global News story'
Ontario energy minister issues letter on winter hydro connections after Global News story

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Ontario Energy Board says the regulator is looking into the new legislation and will respond to questions as soon as possible – most likely Thursday.

How did winter disconnections become so important?

Global News has been investigating rising electricity costs in Ontario since June.

At the time, statistics on the number of disconnections and the number of customers behind on their electricity bills in Ontario were unavailable.

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Eventually, the Ontario Energy Board, which regulates the province’s electricity sector,  released data showing that nearly 60,000 households in Ontario had been cut off from their hydro services in 2015 – an increase of nearly 20 per cent from the year before – and that more than 560,000 customers were behind on their bills.

The data, which clearly showed the effect rising electricity prices were having on hydro customers in Ontario, spurred further investigation that revealed many families across the province experiencing “energy poverty.”

Hydro prices quickly became a thorny political issue for the Liberal government, and it’s responded in several ways – proroguing the Legislature, delivering a Throne Speech promising an HST rebate and adding greater help for rural Ontarians, cancelling billions of dollars in renewable energy contracts, further expanding rural electricity supports and by applauding Hydro One for reconnecting more than 1,400 customers without power.

WATCH: Rising hydro costs force family to choose between electricity and food

Click to play video: 'The high cost of soaring Hydro prices in Ontario.'
The high cost of soaring Hydro prices in Ontario.

But one important measure has remained stalled.  The Liberals put a provision in Bill 27, a 158-page omnibus piece of legislation, that would give the Ontario Energy Board the power to stop winter disconnections.  But the bill is still stuck in the legislative process.

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Then, in the middle of February, after several Global News stories and only a week after saying the government would not pass legislation to end winter disconnections this year, Thibeault made a dramatic shift in policy, requesting that all distribution companies in the province put an immediate and voluntary end to the practice of cutting off power during the winter.

READ MORE: Brantford Power under investigation by the OEB

This decision, which led to Tuesday’s ultimatum and Wednesday’s legislation, meant that a policy all three parties supported would finally be put into practice.

Data, the OEB and Hydro One

The Ontario Energy Board requires utility providers to submit annual data on the number disconnections and customers behind on their bills. This information must be submitted to the OEB by April 30 each year.

The OEB does not, however, collect seasonal data – meaning it’s impossible to determine when a customer was disconnected, when they were behind on their bills or how much they owed at any particular time of the year.

But Hydro One, the province’s largest electricity distributor, has provided Global News with up-to-date statistics describing the exact date and general location of every disconnection it performed in 2016.

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In total, Hydro One disconnected 14,106 customers last year. That’s an increase of nearly 45 per cent when compared to the 9,772 customers disconnected in 2015.

A spokesperson for the company said the large increase in disconnections was due primarily to the fact that issues surrounding the company’s billing malfunctions from 2013 and 2014 had been resolved, meaning the company was returning to disconnection figures consistent with those from previous years.

Broken down by month, April, May and June saw the largest number of disconnects, with an average of 2,400 customers cut off each month, or roughly 50 per cent of Hydro One’s annual total.

Despite the steep increase in disconnections, Hydro One executive vice president of customer care, Ferio Pugliese, says the company is becoming a more customer friendly organization.

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“We’ve been very vocal, especially in the last year, about being advocates for the customer,” said Publiese, referring to the company’s efforts to reconnect more than 1,400 customers without power this winter. “What we found was the policies we had were actually fairly rigid and when we went and revisited the policies it allowed us an opportunity to actually find a greater level of flexibility to work with customers.”

In total, Hydro One has either reconnected or determined reconnection is unnecessary for all but 87 of the more than 1,400 disconnected customers.

For those that remain, Pugliese says the company will continue to reach out through sending letters, phone calls and home visits. He says the job is not done until all customers are reconnected and on the path toward affordable payment plans.

Asked if access to electricity is a fundament right, Pugliese was emphatic.

“No question. I think it is a basic fundamental that all Ontarians should have access to.”

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