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Hydro One's $36-million bill to ski club highlights utility's billing glitches

With Ontarians already worried about rising energy prices, billing errors are adding to the angst. And they are also creating a headache for Hydro One, as the publicly owned transmission company seeks to increase the number of customers it directly serves.

KIBAE PARK/The Globe and Mail

When the Beaver Valley Ski Club received a monthly energy bill of approximately $37,000 last summer, its general manager contacted Hydro One to report that it was several multiples too high.

The utility apologized and promised to resolve the situation. Then it sent the club a bill for $36,658,510.75.

With Ontarians already worried about rising energy prices, such errors – albeit usually involving much less astronomic sums – are adding to the angst. And they are also creating a headache for Hydro One, as the publicly owned transmission company seeks to increase the number of customers it directly serves.

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Two separate problems appear to have led to a spate of such stories in recent months.

In the central Ontario region that's home to the ski club, and possibly in other parts of the province as well, glitches with a new billing system that went live last May have led to a slew of erroneous billings – including some that have told residential customers they owe tens of thousands of dollars more than they should.

Meanwhile, in parts of eastern Ontario, some customers have been under-billed for sustained periods or not received bills at all – then suddenly been invoiced for large amounts for which they are unprepared. The reason, according to Hydro One, is signal interference in some rural areas that prevents information from recently installed smart meters from being transmitted.

A common complaint among customers affected by either issue is that Hydro One has been slow to sort out the problems once identified, leading to months more of uncertainty about just how much they owe.

"When you try to get an answer, you can't get an answer," said Tim Foster, the Beaver Valley GM. "When you talk to a nice person on the phone, they say they'll get back to you."

In an interview, Hydro One vice-president for corporate relations Laura Cooke said the company knows "it's our responsibility to provide timely, reliable and accurate bills to our customers," and apologized for failing to meet expectations in that regard.

"We recognize that these issues have been frustrating to our customers," Ms. Cooke said. "We're working all-out to resolve them."

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Provincial officials note that the vast majority of ratepayers, including those with smart meters, have suffered no such issues. And in December, Hydro One stopped charging interest on all late payments because of the situation.

Such damage control is important for the utility, which is seeking to expand its mostly rural customer base of about 1.3 million by buying smaller "local distribution companies" from the municipalities that own them.

While such consolidation has the potential to save ratepayers money through economies of scale, it could be made more difficult by perceived troubles with customer service.

Meanwhile, there is some danger that smaller billing errors than the Beaver Valley outlier are going undetected and causing customers to pay more (or less) than they should.

As for the ski club, Mr. Foster said the issue has not been fully resolved, and that he has noticed some missing bills of late. That has him worried about a repeat of last summer's eye-popping surprise, albeit probably one that does not involve eight figures.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More


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