Rural hydro bills spark power struggle

By Erin Conway-Smith

The provincial government demanded Ottawa became a unified city, but two years later the province still hasn’t used its power to unify hydro service.

Rural hydro users in Cumberland, Osgoode, Rideau and West Carleton are still paying more – a lot more – to buy their hydro from provincially-owned Hydro One.

Their urban and suburban neighbours get cheaper hydro from city-owned, for-profit Hydro Ottawa, created in November 2000 by the merger of five former municipal utility companies.

Hydro Ottawa wants to buy Hydro One’s rural assets, including infrastructure and a 25,000 customer base, to form one company serving the whole city.

But the province isn’t selling, to the dismay of some rural councillors concerned that partisan politics has caused the delay.

“It was a provincial Conservative government that really forced the amalgamation of all the rurals and urbans into one city,” says Coun. Doug Thompson, who estimates residents in his Osgoode ward pay $300-500 more per year on their electricity bills.

“The province has the authority to sell the rural infrastructure of Hydro One to the city,” he says.

“If they were so hyped up and felt it was so important to have everyone as one municipality they should be prepared to sell Hydro One infrastructure to the city.”

Thompson isn’t sure why the government refuses to sell the infrastructure.

“Unless the rural part of the new city of Ottawa is generating so much revenue for Hydro One that the province doesn’t want to lose us – I don’t know?” he says.

He notes the relationship between the provincial government and Mayor Bob Chiarelli — a former Liberal MPP who has been outspoken about wanting to buy Hydro One’s rural assets — has constantly been strained.

“There is a major ill will between the two,” he says. “This has been a detriment to some things.”

Alf Chaiton, a senior advisor to Mayor Bob Chiarelli, says the city has been trying to buy Hydro One’s rural assets for the past two years

A provision in the provincial Electricity Act allows the energy minister to direct Hydro One to sell its assets to municipalities.

In September, the city sent a letter to Ontario Energy Minister John Baird asking him to do just that, but Chaiton said Chiarelli has not received a response.

He fears the “window of opportunity” for the purchase is closing.

The provincial government is currently trying to sell up to 49 per cent of Hydro One to the private sector and Chaiton thinks this may prevent the Hydro Ottawa deal.

Baird – who is also MPP for Nepean-Carleton, which includes the rural Osgoode and Rideau wards – could not be reached for comment.

Kim McLennan, a spokeswoman for Hydro One, said no talks of a sale are happening now.

West Carleton Coun. Dwight Eastman is in no hurry to pressure the province to sell.

He says the city should “sit tight” and look carefully at the costs of buying Hydro One’s rural assets before jumping in.

“We need to take this out of the political arena, the emotional arena, and we need someone to look at this cooly, calmly,” Eastman says.

Eastman sent his own Hydro One bill to Hydro Ottawa to see what the difference would be, and found the city-owned utility was $230 cheaper over four months.

He’s now calculating how much rural hydro bills will come down after Premier Ernie Eves’s announcement of a reimbursement for electricity costs over 4.3 cents per kilowatt hour, retroactive to May 1.

Reliable service is a very important factor for his ward, he adds, citing concerns of repeated Hydro Ottawa blackouts and brownouts in Goulbourn and Kanata.

“If you’re a farmer dependent on electricity for . . . taking care of animals, it’s not an inconvenience, it’s a disaster,” he says, of blackouts.

Somerset Coun. Elisabeth Arnold says she supports the purchase of Hydro One’s rural assets.

“Given that we’ve gone to one city, it makes sense to have all citizens served by one utility,” she says.

Coun. Phil McNeely says he sees no reason why the residents of his rural Cumberland

ward should pay more for hydro than their neighbors in Gloucester.

“We came into one city, we deserve to get the same service as everybody else,” he says.