Electricity customers in Ontario struggling to pay their hydro bills will no longer need to worry about being disconnected during the winter.
The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) announced Thursday it has permanently banned utility companies in the province from disconnecting residential customers for non-payment between Nov. 15 and April 30 of the following year.
The announcement makes permanent an order issued by the OEB in February, which temporarily forbid electricity companies from cutting off a customer’s power during the winter.
Thursday’s decision also prohibits companies from installing load limiters during winter months. These devices are used to restrict the flow of electricity to a customer’s home in order to reduce overall consumption.
WATCH: After midnight ultimatum, government forced to bring in legislation banning disconnections
“The OEB finds it to be in the public interest at this time to amend the licenses of all electricity distributors in order to ensure that residential customers are not disconnected for non-payment during a Disconnection Ban Period,” said Thursday’s statement.
“Unlike the February 2017 license conditions, however, the new conditions apply on a going forward basis rather than for a single winter period.”
Thursday’s announcement also requires electricity providers to reconnect any customer without power before the start of the disconnection ban period.
Any charges incurred as a result of the reconnection must be waived. This includes the Collection of Accounts services fee that some companies charge for managing overdue accounts.
How did winter disconnections become so important?
Global News has been investigating rising electricity costs in Ontario since June 2016.
At that time, statistics on the number of disconnections and customers behind on their electricity bills in Ontario were unavailable.
Eventually, the OEB released data showing that nearly 60,000 households in the province 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 issue of winter disconnections then become a serious liability for Wynne’s government after Global News and other news organizations began reporting on families from across the province who – despite their best efforts – simply couldn’t keep up with the rising costs of energy.
WATCH: Hydro One leaves family of six without power for six months
For example, in November 2016, Global News profiled a family of six living outside Toronto who’d been without power for more than six months. Despite having a relatively high income, the parents had resorted to bathing their children from plastic bags and garbage cans because without electricity they had no running water.
This story led Hydro One to launch a full-scale review of its customer service policies. The review determined the company had acted inappropriately when implementing its own disconnection policy.
Eventually, Hydro One ordered that all of its 1,400 customers without power be reconnected.
Finally, in the middle of February, only a week after telling Global News the government would not pass legislation ending winter disconnections, Ontario’s Energy Minister, Glenn Thibeault, made a dramatic shift in policy and requested that all electricity companies in the province put an end to cutting off power during the winter.
When several companies refused Thibeault’s request, the government moved ahead with legislation empowering the OEB with greater authority to determine how and when a customer may be disconnected.
The Protection of Vulnerable Energy Customers Act, which received unanimous consent from all political parties, was the result of this action.
Thursday’s decision by the OEB guarantees protection for vulnerable electricity customers outlined in the act. The decision also ends a practice some low-income advocates and politicians have called “inhumane.”