Higher hydro bills seen for Ottawa

Rate increases and colder weather mean many people in Ottawa are seeing higher hydro bills, in some cases up to $100 more per month, and the Ontario government says these higher rates are here to stay.

Rate increases and colder weather mean many people in Ottawa are seeing higher hydro bills, in some cases up to $100 more per month, and the Ontario government says these higher rates are here to stay.

Last summer, Chaplin Heron moved into this small two-bedroom townhouse in Ottawa's Hunt Club area. "My last bill is $459.99, and this is without a winter. So we're going to see what will happen," he said.

Stephany Ryan-Smith said her family's last hydro bill was $743.03 for 61 days. ((CBC))
Heron's home is heated with electric baseboards, and that could mean some hefty hydro bills this winter.

But he isn't alone. Over the past six months, electricity charges have jumped by about eight per cent. Add on another eight per cent for the new harmonized sales tax, and many homeowners are now reporting monthly hydro costs of $200 or more.

A hot summer meant air conditioners were on full blast in many homes, and in October Ontario's Energy Minister Brad Duguid gave customers a slight break of less than $3 per month. But with cold weather ahead, he said higher rates are here to stay.

"We still need to make important investments in our infrastructure to ensure we have a reliable system … because we have to make sure we have enough supply to meet the demand, and there's always a cost to that," Duguid said, adding the province has been subsidizing hydro costs for years.

That cost is now being transferred to people like Ottawa homeowner Kevin Kinsella.

"Wow, $379 for 60 days," Kinsella exclaimed.

For Kinsella, who has a disability and lives on a fixed income, this latest hydro bill means he's had to cut down on food.

"We're moving from 10 per cent to 25 per cent of my income being paid for hydro, and that's a huge jump."

It could soon become even tougher to pay those bills. Over the next year, Ontario is moving to a billing system based on time-of-day use.  That means, unless your electricity consumption is during the night, your bill could go up yet again.

Making changes

Stephany Ryan-Smith said her family makes sure to turn power bars off and to leave not a single, energy-efficient, light bulb on unnecessarily. But so far it's made little difference, the Ottawa mother said.

Her hydro bills are now among the most expensive and most stressful.

"You get the threatening letter a couple of weeks after not paying the hydro," Ryan-Smith said.

"So you have to pay them and then you split the payment for the other bills and spread out the payments as much as you can." 

She's worried her bills could go up even higher as time-of-use rates are introduced over the next year. Hydro customers will pay more during peak hours, but less if you do household chores such as laundry and dishwashing between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays.

Energy use expert Jonathan Ham, of Green Home Inspections, visited Ryan-Smith's house with CBC. He recommended Ryan-Smith consider replacing her oil furnace with a natural gas unit and investing in a more efficient fan to push hot air through the house.

Kevin Kinsella said the jump in hydro rates means he now spends 25 per cent of his income on electricity. ((CBC))

Ham praised Ryan-Smith for connecting her electronics to a power bar.

"Stand-by power is when you have any electronic device plugged into the wall — even if you turn it off it still uses electricity," Ham said.

"The way to stop the phantom power is to unplug the device or plug it into a power bar … and turn the power bar off," Ham said.

But there's no silver-bullet solution, Ham cautioned.

"When we do heating audits, so much of the heating audit is you change your windows, add more insulation, you make changes to the house and you can live the same lifestyle," he said.

"With electricity it’s more lifestyle than actually making changes in the appliances."

Infrastructure problems plague co-op

Residents living in the Quarry Co-op in Ottawa's south end said the building’s outdated heating system is leading to sky-high hydro bills.

Jennie Normand moved into the co-op townhouse to save money on rent, but said winter bills cost her as much as $500.

Property manager Deana Sherif said all 244 units in the complex are heated with electric baseboards, and its hot water heaters are also electric. It was financially viable when the co-op was built in the 1970s, but now the major appliances are doubling and tripling hydro costs. She knows it’s hurting her tenants.

"It was nearly impossible last year, and now they're really feeling the crunch," Sherif said.

Sherif wants to retrofit the townhouses with natural gas furnaces and water heaters, but that would require extensive work on the building's duct system — something that could cost $10,000 per unit. Sherif said the co-op cannot afford to pay for the conversion, and there are no government grants available.

Normand said she plans to turn the heat down as much as possible this winter, while Sherif is hoping the province might start a program  in the new year to help make buildings such as the co-op more efficient.