Thursday September 01, 2016

'People have to choose between heating and eating': Rising hydro costs hit Ontarians

Seniors struggle to pay their hydro bills 1:01

Listen 20:32

Read story transcript

Summer is over and many Canadians are bracing themselves for big hydro bills. But in Ontario, where electricity rates are among the highest in North America, some people are finding their skyrocketing energy costs have forced them into what's been called "'energy poverty."

Dorothy Wynne has been struggling first-hand to pay her family's hydro bill. She and her husband are both in their 80s and live in a small two-bedroom bungalow in Moosoonee, Ont. They're surviving on CPP, Old Age Security and his company pension — and it's not enough.

Their home has no basement; and for heating, there's no furnace. They use baseboard heaters and a wood stove for heat.

hydro transmission lines

According to a report published in Aug. 2016, charities in the Bruce Grey region of Ontario spent more than $1 million last year on low income, energy assistance. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Wynne tells The Current's summer host Robyn Bresnahan that paying the hydro bill is difficult.

"We have to do without. Besides the high cost of living and all that, making ends meet is hard."

Wynne says they have had to cut down on entertainment and groceries — reducing fruits and vegetables and therefore not eating as well as they use to. 

To conserve energy, Wynne tells Bresnahan they unplug everything they can and use the BBQ for cooking. The only reason their lights are still on is because their adult son pays them rent.

hydro bill quoteboard

Wynne has spent $2,800 on her hydro bill from January to August in 2016. She estimates this year she'll spend about $4,300 all told — this includes the original $6,000 land tax and water bills.

"I get upset when I have to pay my bills and count out my pennies."

The Toronto Star's Rob Benzie says Wynne's story is not uncommon.

"Seldom a week goes by at Queen's Park, at the Ontario legislature, where an MPP in an opposition party is bringing up the concern that people have to choose between heating and eating."

According to a report published in August, charities in the Bruce Grey region of Ontario spent more than $1 million dollars last year on low income energy assistance.

Dorothy and Ken Wynne

Dorothy and Ken Wynne are both in their 80s and live in Moosonee, Ont., in a small two-bedroom bungalow. They find it hard to make ends meet and struggle to keep up with their high hydro bills. (Paul Lantz)

Francesca Dobbyn, United Way's executive director in Bruce Grey, says Wynne's story absolutely fits the definition of "energy poverty" and tells Bresnahan that people are making these massive lifestyle adjustments and not seeing the results.

"People are angry, they're frustrated and they don't know what to do," says Dobbyn. "They're being told it's their fault … you left a light on."

Dobbyn has encountered people who have had to walk away from their houses because "the hydro bill is bigger than the mortgage." She says the largest hydro bill the United Way has worked on was $22,000.

In 2015, Hydro One cut off electricity in 60,000 households in its catchment area. Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault is hesitant to call this situation a crisis but Dobbyn begs to differ.

"It's totally a crisis. If we had 30 people in our community with the measles it would be a health crisis. We had, you know, 3,000, people sick from E.coli in Walkerton all those years ago … that was a crisis. We had 60,000 people disconnected from their hydro and that's not a crisis?"

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman, Shannon Higgins and Sarah Grant.

The Current requested comment from the Ontario Energy Board. It sent a prepared statement which reads in part:

"We help control costs for all customers by limiting rate increases by Ontario Power Generation, Hydro One and local electricity distributors through...a rate review system...We encourage all consumers to get involved...We also make funding available to ensure that cost is not a barrier to participating in our proceedings."