Ontario announces stricter consumer protections that do ‘not apply’ to 325K hydro customers

Click to play video: 'Bill 66 could mean higher hydro bills for some Ontario energy consumers'
Bill 66 could mean higher hydro bills for some Ontario energy consumers
WATCH ABOVE: If passed, Bill 66 will strip the Ontario Energy Board of its authority to regulate the rates charged by submetering companies – Jan 22, 2019

The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) announced new consumer protection rules last week for millions of gas and electricity customers.

But because of limitations to the OEB’s powers, many of these rules, according to the OEB’s press release, do “not apply” to the more than 325,000 Ontarians who pay for their utilities through a “submetering” company.

The new rules, which the OEB says will “ensure that both electricity and natural gas customers are treated in a fair and consistent manner,” include restrictions on how much companies may charge for service fees, such as for late payments, delivery of disconnection notices and for reconnecting a customer’s power.

And if Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has its way, the OEB’s ability to regulate these fees will be reduced even further.

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That’s because changes contained in Bill 66, which was tabled in December and passed second reading earlier this month, propose to strip the OEB of its authority to regulate the “energy rates” submetering companies may charge.

And while the government says Bill 66 will “reduce the regulatory burden” on submeterers, saving them roughly $1.3 million a year, consumer advocates from the Low-income Energy Network and United Way have told Global News they’re concerned that not all utility customers in Ontario are afforded the same level of protection.

What are the specific changes?

The changes announced Thursday apply to both local distribution companies (LDCs), such as Toronto Hydro and Hydro One, and regulated gas companies like Enbridge.

Beginning on July 1, companies will no longer be allowed to charge a service fee for collecting overdue amounts, most typically associated with the delivery of a disconnection notice.

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WATCH: Submetering companies voluntarily ban hydro winter disconnections

Click to play video: 'Voluntary ban on hydro winter disconnections'
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Companies will also be prohibited from charging fees for disconnecting gas or electricity, and will only be permitted to charge “reconnection” fees once a customer’s power has been restored.

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The new rules also include enhanced protections for small business owners who want to sign up for equal monthly bills based on an average of their past consumption, and for residential customers behind on their bills who enroll in an OEB-approved arrears payment plan.

But none of these specific rules apply to submetering companies.

“The OEB has had detailed customer service rules in place to protect electricity consumers for many years, and most of those rules apply to [submetering companies],” said OEB spokesperson Mary Ellen Beninger. This includes some of the rules announced last week, she said.

Still, certain rules, particularly those around pricing, do not apply to submeterers, she said. This is due, in part, to the fact that the OEB has not always had the power to regulate fees charged by submeterers.

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Beninger also said the OEB has “not yet determined” how it will deal with rules that do not apply to submetering companies if Bill 66 is “passed as currently written.”

Ontario’s ministry of energy did not respond to questions related to this story.

Rules ‘strike the correct balance’

Chris Holz, spokesperson for the Sub-metering Council of Ontario (SCO), says the rules announced by the OEB “strike the correct balance in protecting consumer interests [and] keeping electricity prices low.”

While the SCO is still reviewing the changes, Holz said the council supports “an effective consumer protection regime.”

WATCH: Energy analyst supports utility submetering, but favours stricter regulations in Ontario

Click to play video: 'Energy analyst supports utility sub-metering, but favours stricter regulations in Ontario'
Energy analyst supports utility sub-metering, but favours stricter regulations in Ontario

He also claims the prices paid by submetering customers in Ontario are roughly $117 a year less than those paid by customers of companies such as Toronto Hydro, citing a report prepared by consulting firm Power Advisory and commissioned by the SCO.

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Holz did not, however, explain why the SCO believes it is appropriate that submetering companies, which he says operate in a “competitive” marketplace, are not subject to the same rules as LDCs and regulated gas distributors.

He also did not answer questions specific to the rule changes announced by the OEB and why these changes should not apply to all utility customers in Ontario equally.

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