TORONTO – Ontario electricity distributors will no longer be allowed to disconnect customers’ power in the winter if they don’t pay their bills, which are steadily rising along with ratepayer anger.
Hydro prices are the most pressing political issue currently facing the Liberal government, which has promised further relief after hearing from Ontarians that a new eight-per-cent rebate is not enough.
Sources have said in addition to more savings for all customers, the government is looking at improving programs that help low-income people struggling to pay their electricity bills.
Those programs have been criticized for not reaching enough eligible ratepayers and for providing tiny savings. Meanwhile, about 60,000 disconnections occur in Ontario each year, though the Ontario Energy Board doesn’t know how many happen during the winter.
Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault gave the local utilities until midnight Tuesday to voluntarily stop the practice before introducing legislation Wednesday morning.
Nearly all of the approximately 70 companies had complied, he said.
“I’m hoping to have all of this done by the end of this week,” said Thibeault. “This is something the legislature has spoken on. All parties were in agreement with unanimous consent on this so I’d like to see the (Ontario Energy Board) act on this as quickly as possible.”
Elsewhere in Canada, many of the Crown corporation utilities already don’t disconnect in winter.
Hydro Quebec has a long-standing policy of not disconnecting customers’ power between Dec. 1 and March 31. Nova Scotia Power won’t disconnect residential accounts while temperatures are forecast to be below 0 C for five days or more, a spokeswoman said. In New Brunswick, customers who can show it is hard for them to pay their bill won’t get disconnected between Nov. 1 and March 31.
SaskPower doesn’t disconnect electricity between Nov. 1 and March 30, nor does it put load limiters on customers who heat with electricity during those months. Limiters allow enough power to operate a fridge, boiler and a few lightbulbs, the utility said. Manitoba Hydro will put load limiters on electricity between Oct. 1 and May 14.
Some Ontario distribution companies have been using load limiters instead of disconnecting customers, Thibeault has said.
Ontario’s largest provider, Hydro One, stopped its winter disconnection practice in December and had said it would reconnect 1,400 customers whose electricity was cut off for not paying their bills. The utility said Wednesday that of those accounts, about 1,000 were either unoccupied properties or didn’t require reconnection.
More than 300 customers have been reconnected, and Hydro One said the remaining 87 customers haven’t responded to the company’s attempts to reach them through calls, letters, and visits to the home.
The Ontario legislation quickly passed through first, second and third readings Wednesday and received royal assent.
But both opposition parties pointed out that the government could have ended winter disconnections much sooner.
One section of the omnibus Burden Reduction Act — introduced in September and still before the legislature — deals with winter disconnections. The opposition parties balked at government suggestions that they could help speed up the passage of the omnibus bill, saying they needed to give a large bill spanning 17 ministries and acts careful consideration.
Instead, they have been calling on the government to break that section out so it could pass more quickly as a separate piece of legislation. The government refused and denied opposition attempts Tuesday to quickly pass legislation similar to what was passed Wednesday.
The majority government could have dealt with the issue much sooner, said Progressive Conservative critic Todd Smith.
“It almost seems like they were playing political games with this legislation,” he said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she doesn’t know what difference 24 hours made.
“We had virtually the exact same thing in the legislature yesterday morning, but if the Liberals needed to put their own stamp on it, then God bless,” she said.
“The bottom line is people in this province should not be in the situation they’re in when it comes to the high hydro bills that they can’t afford. When people get cut off in the winter it has serious consequences here in a province like Ontario.”