/Province passes bill to end winter disconnections

Province passes bill to end winter disconnections

By Angelica Ingram

Published Feb. 28 2017

Last week the province of Ontario passed legislation that will make it illegal for utility companies to disconnect people during the winter months.

Called the Protecting Vulnerable Energy Consumers Act the bill gives power to the Ontario Energy Board to stop winter disconnections a move Hydro One has already voluntarily begun implementing.

Executive vice president of customer care and corporate affairs at Hydro One Ferio Pugliese told the Haliburton Echo the company began a winter relief program in December 2016 to reconnect customers who had overdue and unpaid bills.

The program was implemented out of the company’s intent to become more customer service oriented said Pugliese.

“We undertook a review of all of our policies” he said. “Now that we’ve moved to be a privately held company one of the things that we put together as a strategy is to be customer focused and customer centric … reconnections and our whole collections process was part of that review.”

The vice-president said the company already had a moratorium in place on winter disconnections however Hydro One wanted to take it a step further and look at those customers who were going into winter already disconnected.

“What we discovered was that in many cases these people were disconnected because they had arrears or were unable to service their bills and we found it was because our collections processes were rather stringent and so we loosened those up to allow them more flexibility to get them to actually pay their bills over a longer period of time.”

Pugliese said some of these customers had been disconnected for more than six months.

As of Feb. 22 there were less than 90 customers throughout Ontario who had not taken advantage of Hydro One’s winter relief program according to a news release.

Pugliese said the company has made many efforts to contact those who are still disconnected but have been unable to reach those customers.

More than 1400 customers had been identified through the program. Slightly more than 1000 were either unoccupied properties or customers who did not require connection. A total of 316 customers were successfully reconnected.

“As part of the program Hydro One waived all reconnection fees and worked directly with each customer to develop a payment plan and where appropriate enrolled them into assistance programs such as the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program the Ontario Electricity Support Program the Home Assistance Program and other services” says the news release.

Pugliese said the goal of the program is to not only get people reconnected but to sustain their reconnection through case management and working with the customers directly.

“What we want to ensure is that when they’re making payments the payments are not just going to paying for the monthly bill it’s also going to pay the arrears too … so that they an affordably service that debt” he said.

For northern Ontario which encompasses the area north of Nipissing/Sudbury Hydro One defines winter as happening from November to May. For the remainder of the province winter is from December to April.

The vice-president could not comment on if the program was a response to the recent legislation passed by the Ontario government but said he supports the decision made by the province.

“We’ve been advocating for customers ever since we’ve been a privately held organization. We’ve been pushing hard to say the customer is part of this business and comes first” he said.

Approximately 70 per cent of Hydro One is owned by the provincial government with about 28 per cent of shares sold to the private sector since November 2015. According to reports the provincial government plans to sell 60 per cent of the utility.

Heat Bank Haliburton County co-ordinator Tina Jackson said while the move from the province is a step in the right direction she would like to see more done to help people struggling with their bills.

“What we at Heat Bank know about the downside to this legislation is that this will likely cause a peak of disconnection notices in the spring as utility companies use the threat of disconnection and actual disconnections to collect arrears on outstanding accounts. Until the cost of electricity is made to be affordable to the consumer the energy crisis that we are seeing right now will continue. A more impactful immediate response that could be taken would be to expand the Ontario Electricity Support Program to provide larger credits for a greater number of consumers” she said in an email to the Echo .

Jackson said the news is encouraging for those who do not depend on Hydro One as they will now also be protected during the winter months.

“I was certainly happy to hear that the province has taken action to legally prevent electricity providers from issuing winter disconnections and even happier that the Ontario Energy Board has banned the use of load limiters ( a small device that controls the amount of electricity output) for the balance of this winter. This will help to keep people across Ontario safely housed during our coldest months and will certainly help to ease some of the stress associated with living on a low income and having to juggle bills. However as our region is predominately serviced by Hydro One who has already been voluntarily abstaining from total winter disconnections for years this will not impact our community as much as it will communities that are serviced by smaller utility companies” she said.

Other parts of Canada already have similar disconnection programs in place.

According to the Canadian Press Hydro Quebec and SaskPower won’t disconnect power during the winter months. Nova Scotia Power won’t disconnect if temperatures are forecasted to dip below zero degrees for five days or longer.

Jackson encourages anyone in Haliburton County who has a load limiter installed to contact the Heat Bank office at 705-306-0565 or local MPP Laurie Scott’s constituency office at 705-324-6654 for support in getting hydro restored.