Time-of-use electricity rates: More greenwashing or real conservation?

When the first brochures came out about time-of-use (TOU) billing rates, I was under the impression that somehow the change was going to benefit me as a consumer. I read the headings of the brochures sent with my electricity bill: “simple changes can bring real benefits” and “putting you in control” and “Choose your time. Manage your costs.” To me, those words implied consumer benefits, but I should have read what was in between those headings: my bad for being too trusting.

I didn’t find the time to read them, so instead I threw them into a drawer. I pulled them out this week, after hearing more and more rumblings that this was yet another way to grab the dollars out of our pockets in a more efficient manner. Lately, the water cooler talk is that the TOU is a method to pay for the overly generous F.I.T. rates given to consumers for solar panels on their roofs. Others say that the government is too afraid to charge companies more money even though they make up the bulk of the energy spikes, thus households and small businesses will be the ones forced to smooth out energy usage and bear the costs of doing so.

So, why was I under the impression that this was a good thing for consumers?

I read through the old marketing material I received in the fall/winter of 2009, and noted that the off-peak price proposed for TOU billing then was 4.4 cents; the mid-peak price was 8 cents per kWh, and the on-peak prices was 9.3 cents per kWh. (As a reminder, before the TOU rates went into effect this month, we were paying 6.8 cents per kWh.) Running the numbers, we would save 2.4 cents on off-peak rates from the current rate, and would be charged 2.3 more for mid-peak prices, and 3.1 cents more than the norm for on-peak rates. These rates seem balanced, and I believe that a careful consumer might have a chance to reduce their energy bills.

So what’s the hubbub? The answer stared up at me from the next series of brochures. In two years the rates have gone up significantly, more than once. In fact, the TOU pricing info in my October bill read: off-peak prices 5.9 cents; mid-peak prices at 8.9 cents per kWh, and on-peak prices of 10.7 cents per kWh. Ouch. Not a lot of upside there (0.9 cents savings) and a whole lot of downside (midpeak costs an extra 2.1 cents per kWh, and on-peak hours cost 3.9 cents more).

Then I checked out a website www.ieso.ca/house to see a house’s power usage. On arriving at that page I noticed that the rates had gone up since that last bill insert — with off-peak up to 6.2 cents per kWh (up .3 cents), midpeak also up .3 cents higher to 9.2 cents a month, and on-peak up .1 cents to 10.8 cents per kWh.

How is this putting me “in control” of anything other than putting me in control of paying an additional $200 or more annually on my electricity bill?

What “simple changes can bring real benefits” other than simply moving to a much smaller house to be able to pay my bills on a relatively fixed income? Perhaps the simple change is to take a job with night shifts, so that I sleep during the day when the rates are highest (or for seniors to “simply” change their sleeping patterns).

Perhaps we can “simply” turn off those pesky freezers and refrigerators when we aren’t using them and/or happily spend our entire weekends prepping meals, doing all of our laundry, vacuuming, running the dishwasher … you know, fun stuff. Maybe we are to follow the Argentinean model of eating at 8 p.m. at night: health detriments and children’s bedtimes be damned?

A tip in one brochure is to use a programmable thermostat to reduce energy use when sleeping. The only problem with that idea is that nighttime is when it is cheapest to heat your house. This TOU might bring a whole new dimension to the concept of night sweats, as we crank up the furnace during the night so that we can turn it off during the day.

TOU doesn’t seem to be “creating a culture of conservation” as there is no way of shifting many of our peak hour activities, like heating our houses and cooking our dinners. Tiered pricing, on the other hand, encouraged lower energy usage, was easy to understand, and didn’t require a large upfront capital investment in smart meters.

I have to question whether time-of-use billing is simply more consumer greenwashing. (If it is, remember to save your money and only be green-washed after 7 p.m. weekdays or on weekends.)

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