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Smart meters bring clash over hydro

Devices only make sense if tenants pay for own power
Rent-reduction system a `barrier' to energy saving

Toronto Feb. 27, 2006
by Naomi Carniol

Ontario's quest to save energy with smart meters could lead to a power struggle between landlords and tenants.

The province is considering changes to rental housing laws that could conserve energy, but tenants say they're worried the changes will result in higher costs for them.

Currently, if a landlord wants tenants whose hydro costs are included in their rent to pay for their own power, the landlord must provide a rent reduction that's agreed to by the tenants. If the two sides can't agree, the issue could go to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal.

But if the government gets its wish, possibly as early as this spring landlords won't need tenants to approve the rent reduction. The reason, said Brad Duguid, MPP for Scarborough Centre and parliamentary assistant to Housing Minister John Gerretsen, is that the current system presents a "barrier" to energy saving.

The Liberals have promised to replace the Tenant Protection Act.

One of the intentions of the new tenant legislation is "to support the government's energy policies," said Sonya Rolfe, a manager in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing's market housing branch. Queen's Park wants every residence in the province to have a smart meter by 2010, said Marion Fraser, a senior policy adviser to Energy Minister Donna Cansfield.

Smart meters record electricity use by time of day and allow utilities to set higher rates for periods when power is most in demand.

There's evidence that consumers who have the meters use 5 to 10 per cent less energy, Fraser said. But the devices have little effect if people don't pay their own electricity bills. About 90 per cent of apartments and condos have one meter for the whole building, so "nobody knows individually what they're using," she said.

The government eventually hopes to add a regulation to pending energy legislation that would compel tenants and condo owners to pay for electricity themselves, Fraser said.

If it's optional for residents to pay for electricity directly, "people who use a lot more (energy) are certainly not going to be ... willing to participate in the program," said Brad Butt, president and CEO of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association.

"We'll have to work with the government to determine what is a fair formula for the average tenant in this city to receive a rent reduction," said Butt, whose group represents about two-thirds of Toronto landlords.

Some landlords aren't waiting for Queen's Park to introduce the new legislation.

Paul Barnes, 41, has lived at 1477 Bayview Ave. for almost two years, and his electricity is included in the rent he pays for his one-bedroom apartment. Tenants were recently told that beginning Wednesday, they would have to pay for electricity themselves, but they weren't told what their rent reduction would be, Barnes said.

He's worried tenants will end up paying more for hydro than the discount they'll get on rent.

Steven Yang, one of the building's owners, said he didn't know that tenants need to agree to the rent reduction if a landlord wants to stop including electricity in rent.

"If, in fact, what we are doing is illegal, obviously we can't proceed," Yang said. The owners want the building to be more energy efficient, he said.

But tenants have little control over a building's energy consumption, NDP Leader Howard Hampton said. If a building has poor insulation, tenants can't change that, he said.

Forcing tenants to pay for electricity directly would mean that landlords, who have the ability to implement energy-saving measures, "will no longer have any financial incentive to do so," Hampton said.

Before transferring responsibility for electricity to tenants, buildings should have to pass an "energy audit," said one tenant advocate.

The government is considering that, but it has also asked the Ontario Power Authority's conservation bureau to design a program that encourages landlords to make buildings more energy efficient, Fraser said.

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