March 29, 2016

Ontario public in the dark about Hydro One

The Liberals’ sale of 60% of the formerly public utility that owns and runs Ontario’s electricity transmission system, and directly bills 1.3 million customers, has freed Hydro One from public oversight, including all of the Legislature’s independent watchdogs such as the auditor general and ombudsman. FILE PIC (Julia McKay/The Kingston Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network)

Any future claims by the Liberal government of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne that it is committed to openness and transparency should be measured against the fact Hydro One has now gone dark to public scrutiny.

The Liberals’ sale of 60% of the formerly public utility that owns and runs Ontario’s electricity transmission system, and directly bills 1.3 million customers, has freed Hydro One from public oversight, including all of the Legislature’s independent watchdogs such as the auditor general and ombudsman.

One of the first effects of this sale to private interests is that last week’s release by the government of its annual Sunshine List of public servants earning more than $100,000 annually, no longer includes Hydro One employees, traditionally among the highest paid in the public sector.

Last May, the Legislature’s independent watchdogs wrote an extraordinary letter to Wynne’s government, urging it to keep Hydro One subject to their review. Without it, they warned:

The Auditor General would not be able to conduct performance audits of Hydro One.

The Ombudsman would have no ability to investigate public complaints about Hydro One.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner would no longer be able to oversee the right of access to Hydro One records.

The Financial Accountability Officer would not be able to examine the impact of planned Hydro One operations on consumers or the economy.

Lobbyists would no longer be required to report whether they are lobbying Hydro One.

The Integrity Commissioner would no longer review Hydro One expense claims.

Last December, in her final look at Hydro One, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk reported that between 2010 and 2014 alone, its customers experienced 24% more outages lasting 30% longer, while costs to maintain the system increased 31%.

She described Hydro One as “consistently one of the least reliable among large Canadian electricity distributors.”

Between 2012 and 2014, she found, Hydro One’s maintenance backlog increased 47% and outages 7%.

She cited a risk of more power failures because Hydro One wasn’t replacing $4.5 billion worth of transmission assets “that have exceeded their planned useful service life”.

Meanwhile, former Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin reported on horrendous billing problems faced by Hydro One’s customers.

He said his office had received hundreds of complaints about unexplained billings, “catch-up” bills, “estimated” bills, multiple bills and over-billing and that trying to get answers was like “wrestling with a slippery pig”.

Marin warned Hydro One customers not to allow it to withdraw money from their bank accounts because in some cases it had overdrawn thousands of dollars and refused to return it, even after admitting it was in error. Instead, Hydro One would only give customers credit towards future billings.

Going forward the public has no independent way of knowing whether these problems are being addressed, or getting worse.

So much for the Wynne government’s commitment to openness and transparency.

March 15, 2016

An hour of darkness

Earth Hour, celebrated on March 19, is an annual event that was first started nine years ago in Sydney, Australia by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It has since spread to cities all over the world and takes place every year in late March.

Its purpose is to encourage people to turn off their lights for one hour, between 8:30pm and 9:30pm, in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. The lights have also been turned off on famous monuments all over the world, such as Times Square in New York, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the CN Tower.

Questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the campaign. Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish environmentalist who is also the author ofThe Skeptical Environmentalist, has been one of Earth Hour’s fiercest critics. In an op-ed that Lomborg wrote for Slate, he called the campaign out for being “a colossal waste of time.”

Lomborg argues that Earth Hour disregards how reliant our society has become on electricity and points to how electricity has improved people’s lives when it comes to food preservation, heating homes, and agriculture — things that many of the world’s poor cannot enjoy.

The organizers, however, say that Earth Hour actually “embraces technology.”

“Technology is key to a sustainable future that is aspirational,” reads a part of Earth Hour’s FAQ. “From LED lights, to hybrid vehicles, to developing replacements for unsustainable use of resources — Earth Hour has thrived off the back of the development in digital technology.”

The event has been criticized by those who argue that the campaign is nothing more than a feel-good slacktivist campaign that has little to no impact on protecting the environment.

The organizers of Earth Hour acknowledge that the campaign is symbolic, and they encourage a “commitment to change beyond the hour.” In addition, they say that the focus of the event is not about saving energy during the hour since the amount of energy saved is not recorded.

The energy saved during Earth Hour in Ontario is minimal at best. In 2012, 56.4 per cent of Ontario’s electricity came from nuclear power, which considered a low-carbon form of power generation. Another 22.3 per cent came from hydroelectricity, and natural gas provided 14.6 per cent of the province’s energy output. Since Ontario phased out the use of coal in 2014, natural gas is the only fossil fuel that the province uses as a source of energy.

The attention, however, still seems to be fixated on the actual hour. Toronto Hydro sets a target of 10 per cent reduction in electricity usage during Earth Hour. The media often focuses on the images of monuments across the world which are shrouded in darkness over the hour. They highlight Toronto Hydro’s report on how much energy was saved during the course of the event.

Participation in Earth Hour seems to be declining. According to Toronto Hydro, Earth Hour 2009 saw a 15 per cent reduction in electricity usage. In 2015, there was only a 3.5 per cent drop. In addition, British Columbia only saw a reduction of 0.2 per cent, while Nova Scotia saw a reduction of 0.3 per cent.

Earth Hour has the potential to be used as a stepping stone for real progress when it comes to climate change but simply raising awareness can only go so far. Interest in Earth Hour is waning and the organizers also need to go “beyond the hour,” in order to reinvigorate the campaign.

March 7, 2016

Toronto Hydro announces rate increase for 2016

An electricity meter is seen in this undated photo.

Toronto residents can expect to spend a few dollars more each month for electricity this year.

In December, Toronto Hydro announced it would increase its rates in 2016, a move expected to cost the average homeowner an estimated $40 more on electricity per year.

On Monday, the energy provider released the details of the rate hike, which came into effect March 1.

According to the release, a customer using 800 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month can expect to pay $6.71 per month or about $80 a year more than they did in 2015.

The Ontario Energy Board has given Toronto Hydro permission to raise rates in the city every year until 2019 and approved $2 billion in capital funding to help improve service and reliability.

Toronto Hydro estimates that electricity rates will go up by an average of $2.44 per month or 1.7 per cent during that time.

However, rates did not change in 2015, so the 4.7 per cent increase for 2016 combines rate hikes for both years.

Toronto Hydro says the average bill currently comes to about $165, including taxes. According to the company’s estimates, that charge will be just over $172 by 2019.

The energy provider says it is using the rate increases to fund improvements to its aging infrastructure.

Toronto’s energy grid is the oldest in the province with approximately 40 per cent of all power outages in the city caused by defective equipment.

With files from Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Paul Bliss