Ontario Energy Board orders utility companies to reconnect all customers

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

The Ontario Energy Board has ordered utility companies in the province to reconnect all customers currently without power. The order also states that companies must remove load-limiters, a device used to restrict the flow of electricity, from the homes of all residential customers.

The order will see roughly 930 customers from across Ontario reconnected to their electricity services. An additional 3,000 customers will have load-limiters removed.

“I expect that distributors will make reconnections and the removal of load limiting devices a high priority,” said Brian Hewson, vice president of consumer protection at the OEB. “The OEB will be closely monitoring electricity distributor progress, and will take further action if it appears that a given distributor is not acting responsibly.”

The OEB’s decision comes only a day after the government rushed through the Protection of Vulnerable Energy Customers Act and a failed ultimatum from Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault and Premier Kathleen Wynne to end winter disconnections voluntarily.

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“I find it to be in the public interest to amend the licenses of all electricity distributors in order to ensure that residential customers are not disconnected for non-payment for the balance of the 2016 – 2017 winter,” Hewson said. “I understand that a number of electricity distributors have acceded to the Minister’s request to voluntarily suspend the disconnection of residential customers, but others have not.”

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The order states that utility companies must comply in a “reasonable” time, but does not provide specifics in terms of when all customers must be reconnected.

All reconnection charges, including fees for the removal of load-limiters, must be waived by the utility companies.

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The decision also states that companies are prohibited from any further disconnections or the use of load-limiters between now and April 30.

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Companies must also work with customers to ensure they have access to available assistance programs and any government relief.

“During the ban on residential disconnection for non-payment, I also expect distributors to focus efforts on promoting solutions for customers that have substantial arrears, including offering arrears management plans; increasing awareness of assistance or support that may be available through the Low-Income Emergency Assistance Program, the Ontario Electricity Support Program or other sources,” said Hewson.

The OEB says it will conduct a full and through review of it’s customer service guidelines “in the near future.” According to Thursday’s decision, rules surrounding disconnections from natural gas and electrical services will be a key component of this review.

Low-income energy advocate responds

Theresa McClenaghan, co-founder and executive director of the Low-Income Energy Network, says she’s pleased by the OEB’s decision, but worries the unrestricted flow of electricity to customers’ homes could result in affordability becoming even more of an issue.

“It’s excellent that [the OEB] is acting quickly to implement the all-party direction not to cut people off in the winter, but at the same time I hope they’re really going to make people aware of the programs that are there to help,” McClenaghan said.
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While McClenaghan’s organization is “rather agnostic” when it comes to how the government should pay for such assistance programs – they don’t see the difference between ratepayers or taxpayers footing the bill for energy assistance – she says it’s essential that rural and remote customers in the province receive adequate financial relief from increasing costs.

“There is a worry with the current prices that people’s total bills will be even more out of control then they are already,” said McClenaghan. “So I hope that there will quickly be measures to help people with the affordability side of the equation – especially if they’re low-income or lower middle-income.”

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McClenaghan says LIEN has been lobbying the government for years for an affordability-based energy system to as opposed to the current system in which costs are based largely upon where a customer lives and how densely populated any particular neighbourhood might be.

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“Right now the system is quite inequitable to low-income and rural ratepayers. So it’s not even appropriate to say that it’s ‘their costs’ that they’re bearing,” McClenaghan said. “There was just an arbitrary decision made a number of years ago to draw lines on a map around rural areas and charge costs based on density as opposed to bearing them equitably across the whole system.”

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Although the government hasn’t provided any details, it’s these delivery charges that both Thibeault and Wynne say they’ll be addressing with further subsides and possible reductions in rural rates in the coming weeks.

According to the government, an announcement on further energy assistance programs should be delivered before the spring budget, which is typically delivered sometime in March or early April.

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