Keep­ing lights on in win­ter

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

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.

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