Outdoor electrical plug-in

Opposition politicians in Ontario hammered the government over the low uptake for the incoming low-income energy rebate. (CBC)

Opposition MPPs blasted the provincial government and the Ontario Energy Board Wednesday after CBC News revealed that only seven per cent of eligible low-income households have applied for the energy rebate that goes into effect Jan. 1.

And since it takes between six and eight weeks for an application to be processed, those families may be hit with higher bills as the provincewide clean-energy rebate comes to an end on Dec. 31.

At Queen's Park, Deputy NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the replacement program a failure, saying there are barriers preventing people from gaining access to it.

Winter is coming

"If you have a program that people can't access, you have a meaningless program," he told reporters Wednesday. "Winter's around the corner and many people need electricity to heat their homes and it's going to be an increasingly bigger problem."

On Wednesday, the energy ministry's press secretary provided CBC News with updated numbers, saying about 40,000 of 571,000 eligible households have applied for the program.

Another 30,000 have begun the application process online, Jordan Owens said in an email.

No more clean energy benefit

Energy bills for the rest of consumers will go up on Jan. 1, as both the provincewide rebate lifts -- and the 93 cent surcharge gets added to offset the cost of the low-income rebate.

Initially, the Ontario Energy Board expected the rebate would cost $145 million.

Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli had no clear answer about what would happen to anything left over from that $145 million in surcharges, when Tory energy critic John Yakabuski asked him about it during Question Period Wednesday.

"If the enrolment stays low,[the government]won't need the money they've collected for the program, but if they hang onto it, that's the definition of a cash grab," Yakabuski said in Question Period. "It's not just the lowest Ontarians who can't afford electricity; every Ontarian is taken aback when they open their hydro bill."

93-cent surcharge

The Ontario Energy Board, however, said the 93 cent surcharge is based on the expectation that 60 per cent of those who qualify for the low-income rebate apply. If fewer people do, the government can adjust the surcharge partway through 2016, Sylvia Kovesfalvi said in an email to CBC News.

But Kovesfalvi said the Ontario Energy Board expects it will hit that target by December 2016.

The board has spent $1.6 million on advertising, Kovesfalvi said, including ads on public transit, in food banks, libraries and constituency offices.