Keeping lights on in winter
When it’s winter in Ontario, electricity is a necessity of life for almost everyone.
The Ontario legislature wisely recognized this Wednesday when it passed legislation that will stop electricity distributors from disconnecting customers’ power at the coldest times of year.
Whether it’s a source of heat or runs a heating system, whether it keeps the lights on through long, dark nights or, as it does for many rural Ontarians, pumps water from wells, electricity keeps us warm, comfortable and safe every winter.
Despite this, thousands of Ontario households have their electricity disconnected at this time of year because of unpaid bills.
About 60,000 disconnections occur annually in this province, though the Ontario Energy Board doesn’t have seasonal data. The fact that disconnections happen too often in winter became clear last December when Hydro One announced it would hook 1,400 customers back onto the grid.
It could be argued that you should only get what you pay for in life. By this line of thinking, people should get their priorities right — and paying their electrical bills should be a top item on the to-do list.
But insisting on financial accountability isn’t always the best way to go. Sometimes, it’s more important, and more humane, to ensure people have what they need to live decent lives at a time of year that — this unseasonably mild February notwithstanding — can be brutal.
It’s also obvious that many of the people who suffer the harsh consequences when a household is taken off the grid are children and not responsible for the unpaid bills. They should not be punished for someone else’s actions.
All parties in the provincial legislature deserve credit for the remarkably swift passage of this bill, which went through first, second and third readings on Wednesday.
The government and opposition put the needs of vulnerable Ontarians first. That’s not to say, however, that this initiative was free of political infighting.
The opposition Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats hammered the Liberal government for not passing the legislation last autumn by breaking it out of a larger omnibus bill that will take longer to approve.
What should concern Ontarians more than any delays with this legislation is why the bill is necessary.
Exorbitant, steadily rising electrical costs — especially in rural areas — are a major contributing factor in unpaid hydro bills.
Poorer Ontarians are complaining they often have to choose between paying their hydro bills and putting enough food on the table or covering their rent. That’s to be expected when some rural homeowners are spending $500 to $600 a month on electricity.
In November, Premier Kathleen Wynne accepted responsibility for the hardship high electricity bills are causing and called it her “mistake.” It remains to be seen whether her government can provide meaningful relief to those who are burdened by soaring electricity costs. While the government had to improve the hydro system’s infrastructure, its overly generous subsidies for wind and solar energy are also a significant part of the problem.
Trimming high-priced hydro bills will be harder than temporarily excusing those who can’t afford to pay for them.