Time of Use Billing is an Assault


Bill shockBy returning to the money-grabbing time-of-use (TOU) billing, Ontario’s Hydro One continues its unrelenting assault on the province’s seniors, stay-at-home parents, the unemployed, night shift workers, those under lockdown, and every business and industry here. Time-of-use billing has always been nothing more than an egregious money grab by the service provider.

This customer-hostile practice had been briefly halted during part of the pandemic because so many of us had to stay at home as the result of provincial lockdown orders. It’s tough to pay your bills when the province says you can’t work. And they keep saying that.

But without much, if any, warning to consumers that I can find, the corporation went back to its old ways to gouge customers. And the government basically told us to “eat cake.” As a story on CTV News warned us on April 14,

… the provincial government will not be offering off-peak hydro rates during the province’s second, month-long stay-at-home order – as it did in January… The province returned to the fixed tiered rates and regular, three time-of-use price periods of its winter schedule on February 23.

I don’t recall any public announcements about the change, but in the Ontario Energy Board’s (OEB) site, it notes a message put online only on Feb. 22, a mere day before the TOU pricing came into effect:

Beginning February 23, 2021, residential and small business customers will resume paying Time-of-Use (TOU) and Tiered pricing under the Regulated Price Plan (RPP) at prices that were set by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) on December 15, 2020.

During his 2018 election campaign, Doug Ford promised Ontarians he would lower electricity rates by 12% if he was elected premier.  And when he got elected, he did… nothing about hydro rates. In late 2019, the premier again promised Ontarians he intended to lower electricity rates by 12%, even though he knew a rate hike was pending. As CTV News told us:

Calling the energy file an “absolute disaster,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford renewed his election pledge to lower hydro rates in Ontario, despite a recently announced hike by the Ontario Energy Board.

And again in March, 2020, the premier announced he still intended to keep his election promise to lower the province’s egregiously high electricity rates. And still he did nothing. Since he’s been in office, those rates have done nothing but continue to rise. As City News told us back in March, 2020:

During the 2018 election campaign, Ford repeatedly attacked the then-Liberal government for enacting polices he said led to hydro price increases. He promised to slash rates through a variety of measures he said would save the average ratepayer $173 a year.

That never happened. Instead, rates increased by about 1.8% last fall. In early February, 2021, Greg Rickford, Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, Minister of Indigenous Affairs, told the media,

We know staying at home means using more electricity during the day when electricity prices are higher, that’s why we are extending the off-peak electricity rate to provide households, small businesses and farms with stable and predictable electricity bills when they need it most. We thank Ontarians for following the provincial Stay-at-Home Order to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

And then, even when they knew people were struggling, the rates went back up to TOU billing. The government has done nothing to reset them and give residents a break, even though we’re back in another, even-longer lockdown than before. Think we’re being screwed by the province? Me, too.

I first wrote about Hydron One’s discriminatory billing practices back in 2015. Back then I commented that TOU billing “targets the people generally least able to afford it” and that “we in Ontario already pay more than what similar users in most provinces pay for electricity, sometimes more than double! Ontario hydro rates are higher than anywhere else in Canada!”

It remains true. Despite our premier’s promises — now shown as empty gestures to garner votes — rates rise, not fall. And TOU billing makes it harder for everyone because most of us have no other choice than to operate appliances and equipment, turn on lights, or heat the house during the highest billing period. On-peak costs are more than double the off-peak costs, but many of us have no other alternative. And the service providers know that and laugh all the way to the bank.

You might ask, how much money do the CEO and executives of Hydro One get for gouging customers? According to the CBC, in March, 2019 certainly won’t be hurt by their billing practices that are burdening the rest of us:

The CEO’s base salary will be set at $500,000 per year, while short-term and long-term incentives are limited to $1 million… Other executives will earn no more in annual compensation than 75 per cent of that of the CEO… the company agreed to pay the board chair no more than $120,000 annually and board members no more than $80,000…

That 75% means the other execs get $1.25 million apiece. Committee chairs get $85,000 each, and members get $80,000. You can read the whole executive compensation package here.*

Yet while their executives plan their next yacht purchase, utilities across the province say their customers are struggling to pay their bills. A story in the Waterloo Record earlier this month noted:

The shutdown means thousands more residents in the region will be out of work while businesses that rely on in-person service are forced to shut down again. It will lead to further delays in payments for utilities that have already been working with clients for over a year to find alternative payment options… “Customers are struggling to pay their bills,” said Energy Plus spokesperson Allison Cann. “As a utility, we can see the pandemic has impacted both residential and commercial customers.”

But yet TOU billing was implemented regardless of its impact, making it even more difficult for Ontarians already seriously affected by the lockdowns.

You might ask what is being done locally to help those affected by the lockdowns by EPCOR, the for-profit corporation the previous council sold our publicly-owned utility to without any public consultation? Apparently nothing. On its website, EPCOR says customers in distress can apply to the province for help under the COVID-19 Energy Assistance Program (CEAP). But that’s just a one-time gesture, not an ongoing support program during a pandemic that’s lasted more than a year. And it’s not a lot of money (emphasis added):

Eligible electricity customers may qualify for a one-time CEAP credit for half of the electricity charges that are overdue on the date of their application for CEAP, up to a maximum of $115. The CEAP credit can be higher for eligible electricity customers if:

  • their home is mainly heated by electricity; or
  • they use one of three at-home energy-intensive medical devices (kidney dialysis, mechanical ventilator or oxygen concentrator).

In that case, they may qualify for a one-time CEAP credit for half of the electricity charges that are overdue on the date of their application, up to a maximum of $230. 

Aside from making it someone else’s responsibility to help the community, I can’t find anything else they’re doing. The Town of Collingwood’s COVID-19 information portal about relief measures for water, wastewater, and electricity seems to have last been updated more than a year ago because it notes under EPCOR:

As a result, effective March 24, 2020, residential and small business customers who pay time-of-use (TOU) electricity rates will now be charged off-peak rates 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as the Emergency Order is in place. 

That billing system changed two months ago, but the town doesn’t seem to be aware of it. EPCOR’s advice on that page is for residents to look elsewhere for help:

Lower-income customers may qualify for a reduction on their electricity bill. The Ontario Energy Board’s Ontario Electricity Support Program can reduce the cost of your household electricity by applying a monthly credit directly to your bill.

This is the inevitable result of privatizing a public utility: we lost all local control over rates and services and now we’re paying the price.  Look elsewhere for help because none is coming locally.

Our council has been lavishing money to promote the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI) with little success, and the actual cost of the SVJI is likely well over $10 million to date. But how much money has our council dedicated to help needy residents and businesses suffering from utility bills during the lockdown? As much as Doug Ford has done to lower hydro rates: nothing.

Collingwood deserves better.

* Mayor Brian Saunderson, his cabal of council supporters, and some town staff have been obsessively trying to get confidential information (protected by law under the Ontario Corporations Act) about the salaries of Collus and former Collus employees for the past seven years. Saunderson even raised this during his failed, virtual “public meeting” about the SVJI. But this is the same group that sold our public utility to a private, for-profit corporation (without any public input or consultation) where such information is clearly secret. Not once has the town asked for salary information about EPCOR employees to be made public, nor has our mayor publicly obsessed over getting that information as he has the decade-old information he still seeks. You begin to see the hypocrisy at work here, I suspect.

PS. Did anyone see notice of this return to TOU billing in local media? I didn’t, and wonder why it wasn’t even mentioned…

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