Consumer group blames Hydro-Québec smart meters for rise in power cutoffs

A consumer protection group says there's a spike in the number of Quebecers who have had their electricity cut off this year and the new generation smart meters are partly to blame.

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, the utility cut electricity to a record 51,000 homes and businesses with unpaid bills

The Union des Consommateurs says Hydro-Québec's new smart meters make it easier for the utility to cut power to its clients. (CBC)

A consumer protection group says it’s concerned about the number of Quebecers who have had their electricity cut off by Hydro-Québec so far this year, and it says the new generation smart meters are partly to blame.

The Union des Consommateurs says smart meters make it easier for the utility to disconnect clients because it’s done remotely from Hydro’s headquarters with a simple click.

This year, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, Hydro-Québec cut power to 51,015 homes and businesses.

In all of 2013, about 37,000 clients were cut off.

Consumer rights advocate Marc-Olivier Moisan-Plante says he's not surprised by the surge in the number of Hydro-Québec clients who've had their power cut.

“The hike in tariffs, the poor economic conditions, … the very cold winter and, of course, the smart meters,” said Moisan-Plante, an energy analyst at the Union des Consommateurs.

Moisan-Plante says with the new smart meters, Hydro-Québec employees no longer have to physically go to the address where they're cutting power, and that can lead to dangerous situations.

“Some person may live with medical equipment necessary to live. So we think it's [imprudent] to remotely disconnect electricity.”

Moisan-Plante said Hydro-Québec charges high fees to reconnect cut-off customers, and that's another pressing concern.

The Union des Consommateurs will file a complaint at Quebec's Energy Board next month asking Hydro-Québec to cancel those charges.

Smart meters not to blame, Hydro says

Hydro-Québec says the increased number of clients who have been unplugged from the grid has nothing to do with the new smart meter system.

Hydro-Québec spokesman Patrice Lavoie said the number is about the same as in 2012, and most have had their electricity reconnected.

Lavoie said that the colder winter in 2013-14 might have had an impact on clients' electricity consumption, and consequently their bills were higher.

He also said Hydro-Québec’s new rate structure might play a role.

“The rate adjustment we had last April 1 might also be a reason why we have had some service interruptions this year, unfortunately,” said Lavoie. "It's not a pleasure for Hydro-Québec to interrupt our service to our clients."

Lavoie told CBC’s Daybreak that the new smart meters do make it easier to disconnect the power, but he said that is not Hydro-Québec’s first option.

“We still want to make a payment arrangement with people. We made more than 200,000 payment arrangements with our clients last year,” Lavoie said, adding that clients receive three notices by mail and reminders by phone once they are in default.

By law, nobody in the province spends the winter without electricity.

Lavoie said the utility must reconnect electricity to clients who’ve been cut off by Dec. 1, and it will not cut off power for anyone between Dec. 1 and March 31.