Quebec utility customers wait to save

QUEBEC - Hydro-Québec has become a victim of the success of its dual-energy savings program for residential customers.

With heating oil prices skyrocketing this year, demand for Hydro's dual-energy program has jumped about 600 per cent, said Marc-Brian Chamberland, spokesperson for the utility company.

But many Hydro customers are still waiting for the dual-counter meters needed to take advantage of cheaper electricity rates under the program.

"We really apologize for that," Chamberland said. "We are pretty confident they will get the service by the end of the year."

While Hydro normally handles 1,000 to 2,000 requests a year to convert to dual-energy billing, more than 6,000 customers have made the switch so far this year, Chamberland said.

About 1,300 of those clients have are still waiting for their meters to be installed.

The manufacturer who supplies Hydro with the special meters can only produce 200 a week, Chamberland noted. "It's impossible to get more."

Hydro employees who install the meters are also spread thin handling the rising demand for electric heating, he said.

About 70 per cent of Quebec homes now heat with electricity alone.

Chamberland said the utility is discussing ways to compensate customers who opted for dual-energy systems but could not take advantage of lower heating rates because of the equipment holdup.

"It's our firm intention to ensure that the customers are not penalized because they don't have the meters yet," he said.

The dual energy program allows customers to heat and light their homes at reduced electricity rates during relatively mild weather (minus 12C and above in southern Quebec).

When the thermometer plummets below minus 12C, more efficient heating systems, such as oil or gas, take over, but household electricity rates triple. (Temperatures dropped below minus 12 in Montreal on 46 occasions last winter, Environment Canada says.)

Dual-counter meters register the alternate energy consumption rates, and billing is adjusted accordingly.

About 120,000 Hydro customers now benefit from dual-energy rates.

Laval homeowner Dennis Kinko said he waited almost six weeks to have a meter installed after converting his oil-heating system to dual energy.

When he called Hydro to complain, employees told him some clients had been waiting since June to be hooked up to a meter, said Kinko, whose meter was finally installed.

"Hydro was caught off-guard by the huge demand to convert to dual energy," he said.

"Meanwhile, the cold season is here and I have been using my heat pump and paying the full (Hydro) rate - it's not fair."

The cost of converting from an oil forced-air furnace or oil radiator system to dual-energy is about $2,000 to $4,000, and $4,000 to $6,000, respectively, says Cherif Menassa, president of Thermolec Ltd., a Montreal firm that manufactures oil-electric dual-energy systems.

Prices could be steeper, depending on the contractor homeowners hire to install the equipment, he noted.

"Customers should ask for two or three quotes, and not press the contractor to do a rush job," Menassa said.

Dual-energy savings usually offset the cost of conversion within a couple of years, experts say.

Kinko said he expected to save hundreds of dollars this winter alone by converting to a dual-energy heating system.

"Instead of using a reservoir and a half of oil, I'll probably use one-third of the reservoir."


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