Seniors facing 'energy poverty'

Originally published in the Toronto Sun on January 22nd, 2011. To go to the Toronto Sun website please click here

Seniors and poverty activists are pressing Ontario’s government to pull the plug on soaring hydro rates.

But as provincial officials and opposition MPPs spar over the effectiveness of a recent 10% annual discount, plus tax cuts for 740,000 seniors, critics say pensioners remain caught in a power struggle.

They predict these victims of so-called “energy poverty” face health risks from lowering heat and air conditioning to avoid peak daytime hours and rising energy fees.

Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski compared rebates and discounts to “a guy who mugs you on the street and takes $100, then … gives you enough for bus fare and expects you to be grateful.”

Instead of its Ontario Power Generation monopoly, Canadian Taxpayers Federation national director Derek Fildebrandt said the province should “abandon hare-brained eco-schemes” such as wind turbine and solar power.

“We’re paying the price of government for trying to … tell the people what to do,” he said.

“If economically feasible, private enterprise would do it without massive corporate welfare.”

With many 1960s homes from that “live better electrically” era heated with hydro, Yakabuski said seniors in those residences are right to fear rising energy costs.

The province boosted fees by 75% over the past five years, then in 2010 announced a 46% surge by 2015 — after its new HST added 8% to electrical bills.

Yakabuski accused the government of “misleading” Ontarians about electricity bills and alternative energy plans.

Energy Minister Brad Duguid, however, accused the Tories and New Democrats of “fear-mongering on the impact on seniors.

“Opposition leaders are trying to hoodwink Ontario families that you can build clean energy for free,” he said in an interview.

“We’ve provided a significant amount of assistance, that should by and large offset the increased bills.”

The province’s 20-year plan will build “a healthier, efficient system” for pensioners’ grandchildren, Duguid said.

Yakabuski said people would benefit if allowed to choose fixed daytime rates over peak billing, but Duguid told the Sun “that would actually be more expensive.”

NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns lauded alternate power plans as the province prepares to close the last coal-powered plants by 2014, but says financial aid for pensioners and people on fixed incomes to improve their insulation would immediately cut energy consumption.

Too many politicians are “running around saying ‘oh, those poor seniors’,” but offer few solid, long-term solutions, said Susan Eng, vice-president of CARP, a national advocacy organization for older Canadians.

With 25% more seniors below poverty levels in recent years, she said boosting fees to make people conserve energy will further hurt pensioners with “no new source of income.

“If a person is housebound or staying at home possibly hooked up to medical machinery, high daytime rates are costly,” Eng said.

Instead of piecemeal alternatives, she said the government could provide fairer billing based on incomes, with outreach programs for those unable or unwilling to complete required forms.