Ontario NDP brings issue of hydro bills back to election campaign trail

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks to supporters during her nomination meeting and campaign kick-off in Hamtilon, Ont., on Saturday, April 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nick Iwanyshyn

Ontario's New Democrats promised to lower hydro bills on the campaign trail Saturday, reigniting the hot topic of 2018's election, though they're approaching the issue through energy efficiency rather than direct subsidies.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she would offer grants of $7,000 to $11,000 for people to make energy efficient upgrades to their homes, and interest-free financing for higher amounts, which would both help lower utility bills and help the environment.

"This is all about making sure that not only do we fight the climate change that we have in front of us, but that also we're making sure that people can have a more affordable life," Horwath said during a stop in Bowmanville, Ont.

The former Liberal government introduced a plan in 2017 to subsidize hydro costs as soaring bills became a major source of anger ahead of the last election. Bills had roughly doubled over the course of a decade due in part to the Liberals' green energy initiatives, which saw consumers pay above-market rate to power producers.

The current Liberal election platform promises to "transition as quickly as possible" to a fully clean energy supply.

Party leader Steven Del Duca said he doesn't "anticipate" the plan would send bills soaring.

"In our plan, which we released a number of days ago on the environment, we would transition, making sure that Ontarians had the energy supply that we need by pursuing a conservation first policy," he said Saturday during a campaign event in Ottawa.

The Liberals promise to phase out reliance on gas plants for baseload power and ban new natural gas plants. They would also develop a long-term energy plan that includes "the right, cost-effective mix" of nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables. Ontario has not released a long-term energy plan since 2017.

During the 2018 election, the Progressive Conservatives promised to further slash hydro bills by another 12 per cent.

Ontario's financial watchdog said in a report earlier this year that prices have actually risen by 4.3 per cent since 2018, but changes the Tories made to subsidy programs have kept bills lower than they would have been under the Liberal plan.

The 12-per-cent gap won't be achieved until 2025, the Financial Accountability Office said, but the number will continue to grow, peaking in 2029, when bills will be 23 per cent lower than under the Liberal plan assuming current policies continue.

When asked Saturday if a re-elected Progressive Conservative government would do anything to further lower hydro bills, leader Doug Ford said he did lower rates for large manufacturers, which he tied to attracting more investment, such as from auto companies.

"We're going to make sure that we continue to drive efficiencies, create more electricity, cost-effective electricity," he said in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

"That's one of the reasons why the economy is booming right now, is because we made it competitive with other jurisdictions in North America."

The Tories' 2018 election platform had said they would achieve the 12-per-cent cut by returning Hydro One dividend payments to families, paying for conservation programs out of general revenue, cancelling energy contracts and declaring a moratorium on new ones.

They followed through with three out of those four measures but did not move on the Hydro One dividend, which they estimated at the time as $300 million to $400 million a year.

The NDP promised during the last election to reverse the Liberals' decision to partially privatize the utility and buy back the shares, but Horwath didn't repeat that pledge when asked Saturday.

"It was shameful that (former premier) Kathleen Wynne and Steven Del Duca's Liberals sold off Hydro One in the first place after promising that they wouldn't do so," she said.

"It was an absolute travesty that they decided to do that. We are certainly going to work very hard to make sure that our energy system is one that not only is reliable, is also much more green, but is affordable."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2022.

-- With files from Noushin Ziafati in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Adena Ali in Bowmanville, Ont., and Marie Woolf in Ottawa