Coronavirus: Ontario’s latest electricity measures leave out hundreds of thousands of customers

WATCH ABOVE: While millions of Ontario residents can breathe a sigh of relief knowing the province has implemented new cost-saving and protective measures when it comes to our hydro bills during the COVID-19 pandemic, Global News has learned there are still hundreds of thousands of residential and small business customers that aren’t covered under the changes. Jamie Mauracher explains.

Ontario’s ban on disconnecting electricity during the COVID-19 pandemic does not apply to roughly 325,000 residential and small business customers in the province, Global News has learned.

The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) recently prohibited all electricity distributors in the province from disconnecting power because of non-payment until at least July 31.

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But anyone who receives an electricity bill from a submetering company — such as Wyse Meter, Enercare or Provident — is not protected by the ban.

Announced Tuesday, the government’s rollback on electricity rates in response to the new coronavirus outbreak also does not apply to roughly 250,000 residential and small business customers in Ontario, according to information provided by the OEB. This includes both submetered and non-submetered customers.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Kenn Hale, legal director for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

“Hundreds of thousands of people in this province are being laid off and people are not going to be able to pay all their bills.”

Submetering companies install “suite-meters” in each unit of multi-unit buildings, allowing landlords and property managers to shift the cost of electricity to individual tenants and condo owners.

Chris Holz, a spokesperson for the Submetering Council of Ontario (SCO), said the industry recognizes the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and is committed to making sure customers get the help they need.

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He also said that SCO members — including Wyse Meter, Enercare and Provident — have voluntarily decided not to disconnect customers who are struggling financially due to COVID-19 and that these bans will be in place until July 31.

Holz said the companies will also pass on any cost savings from the government’s price rollback to all eligible customers.

No plans to extend ban

The OEB has no plans to extend the mandatory ban on disconnections to include submetering companies because it lacks the authority to do so, said OEB spokesperson Mary Ellen Beringer.

The OEB also said the ban placed on electricity distribution companies — like Toronto Hydro, Hydro One and Alectra Utilities — last week was needed in spite of voluntary bans from some companies to make sure there is “consistency” for customers across the province.

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But because of how Ontario’s energy regulations work, submetering companies are not subject to the same sets of rules that apply to local distribution companies. This includes certain customer service rules, such as when electricity can be disconnected and how much a company may charge for reconnection.

Unlike the rules for local distribution companies, provincial legislation also does not allow the OEB to set energy rates charged by submetering companies.

Hale says the crisis caused by COVID-19 highlights the need for equal protection for all energy consumers in Ontario — regardless of who sends them their electricity bill.

“It really does speak to the problem with lack of regulation and leaving these important decisions in private hands,” he said.

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Still, many customer service rules and regulations imposed by the OEB do apply to submetering companies, such as the unit-submetering code.

Prices paid by submetering customers in Ontario are also about $117 a year less than those paid by customers of companies such as Toronto Hydro, the SCO has said, citing a report prepared by consulting firm Power Advisory which they commissioned.

Price cuts don’t benefit all

On Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford and Energy Minister Greg Rickford announced a 45-day price reduction to the cost of electricity for roughly five million residential and small business customers in the province.

The price cut applies to anyone on Time-of-Use (TOU) billing — including submetering customers — whose cost of electricity varies based on the time of day energy is used.

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Ford and Rickford said the price cut was necessary to help Ontarians during the COVID-19 outbreak, especially as they’re asked to stay at home and are likely to use more power.

But the price cut doesn’t apply to everyone.

There are approximately 250,000 “tiered rate” customers in Ontario — meaning the amount they pay for electricity is fixed based on how much energy they use — who won’t benefit from these savings.

At current prices, tiered rate customers will pay between 20 and 40 per cent more for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they use over the next 45 days compared to TOU customers.

Based on average household energy consumption in Ontario — the data does not reflect increased energy use due to people spending more time at home — the difference in prices works out to about $20 a month more in electricity costs for tiered rate residential customers.

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Global News asked the government why it decided to implement a price cut for TOU customers only.

In a written response, Sydney Stonier, a spokesperson for Rickford’s office, said tiered rate customers “already pay consistently lower rates and do not see the same sharp impacts of using electricity during on-peak periods.”

But according to a report from the OEB on how energy rates in Ontario are calculated – at least before the government’s recent price rollback – both TOU and tiered rate customers pay the same price, on average, per kilowatt-hour.

This means the new, lower cost for TOU customers imposed by the government creates a pricing advantage for one type of customer over another that previously did not exist.

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On the disconnection ban, Stonier said the government commends submetering companies for prioritizing the needs of their customers and that they were told before the OEB’s ban was put in place that submeterers would create their own bans on disconnection during the pandemic.

The government has also said its price cuts to TOU billing in response to COVID-19 will save small businesses an average $150 a month, while residential customers will save about $20 a month.

The government has also said no customers should be at risk of losing electricity during the coronavirus pandemic.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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