On May 13, 2016, the Ontario Energy Board ("OEB" or the "Board") published details on its new Consumer Engagement Framework (the "Framework"), currently slated for implementation by 2018.
Currently, electrical distribution utilities are required to file evidence in their rebasing applications before the OEB of enhanced engagement with customers to provide improved alignment between the distributor's plans and customer needs and expectations. Under the OEB's current approach to adjudication, customer interests in rate proceedings are typically represented by intervenor groups that participate in almost all rate cases across the Province, with minimal local consumer involvement. Intervenors are funded by the applicant distributors, and in turn by customers, because application-related costs are usually incorporated in rates. Local customers are permitted to participate in the proceedings, but there is usually little local participation. Hearings are usually held at the OEB's offices in Toronto, and until very recently, there have been few sessions held in the service areas affected by the rate applications.
The Framework maintains these customer engagement obligations on utilities, and builds on them with the Board taking a more direct and active role to allow for greater involvement by consumers in the OEB's processes.
Background: Reviewing Consumer Participation in the OEB's Processes
In a recent presentation, OEB representatives discussed the OEB's review, conducted over the past several years, of consumer participation in the Board's processes:
- In 2014, the OEB completed the first phase of its review. After examining its approach to intervenor status, cost eligibility and cost awards, the Board implemented several procedural and administrative changes to its existing intervenor funding process. This was aimed at increasing transparency and accountability.
- From 2013-2016, the Board reviewed and revised its legal notices to ensure that they were presented using plain language, enhancing readability and understanding. The Board also piloted community meetings for larger rate hearings.
- Most recently, in 2015-2016, the Board completed the third phase of its review, identifying and evaluating alternative models to the Board's current approach through a jurisdictional review. As part of this undertaking, the Board developed the Consumer Engagement Framework, which adopts best practices to ensure effective and transparent consumer engagement and representation in the OEB's processes.
Moving Forward: The New Consumer Engagement Framework
The final phase of this initiative is implementation of the Framework, described by the Board as "a suite of tools to give residential and small business customers information and access to OEB adjudicative processes".
The OEB has stated that the Framework will allow for greater involvement by consumers in the OEB's process. The Board has committed to hearing the views, concerns and questions of local, directly impacted consumers, and taking these concerns into account in deciding whether utility rates are just and reasonable.
According to the OEB, the Framework is not intended to be a replacement for the intervenor process or to overlap with utilities' existing customer engagement responsibilities. Rather, it is intended to increase consumer awareness and access to information and be complementary to the Board's existing tools.
The OEB suggests that it wishes to achieve the following "deliverables":
- The OEB's regulatory process is easily understood by Ontario electricity and natural gas consumers;
- Residential and small business consumers have access to and can meaningfully participate in OEB hearings;
- The OEB has effective mechanisms to ensure the voice of the consumer is heard; and
- OEB decisions consider the views of the consumers impacted.
The key aspects of the Framework include the following tools:
- Continued engagement by utilities with their customers before filing an application;
- Increasing consumer awareness through notification via multiple channels, including going beyond legal notice requirements (including OEB/utility websites, email, social media, direct mail and bills);
- An enhanced OEB website targeted at consumer education and involvement, to be available mid-2017;
- Publishing a plain-language, easy-to-use guide made up of a number of "quick tools", available in the fall of 2016;
- Issuing shorter, plain language notices to be posted on the OEB's and applicant's websites, personally served on anyone that is affected or is likely to be affected and published in newspaper(s) in the area most affected by the proposals in an application;
- Engaging "Process Counsel" starting in the fall of 2016 — a dedicated customer contact person at the OEB who:
- Knows what applications have been filed with the OEB;
- Knows how the OEB's decision making processes work;
- Knows how consumers can get involved in the process; and
- Can help reduce barriers faced by consumers who want to know how to effectively participate in an adjudicative process/hearing.
- Accepting letters of comment from consumers on applications;
- Holding Community Meetings which the OEB and the applicant would attend after an application is filed but before the hearing
- These will be broadly advertised and held in an informal, “open house” format in the applicant's service area.
- Continuing the current intervention model
- Directly impacted parties, or the associations and organizations that represent them, will continue to be able to intervene in the OEB's processes in accordance with its current Rules;
- We note that it is unclear what the impact of the Framework will be on intervenors that represent broad, province-wide consumer interests, if those representatives fail to be engaged as regional consumer representatives (described below).
- Engaging Regional Consumer Representatives
- Starting in 2017, the OEB will pilot the use of local community-based representatives to gather information from and advocate on behalf of local customers during hearings;
- Representatives will be selected based on:
- Experience in hearing advocacy;
- Familiarity with regional/local energy issues;
- Knowledge of energy matters; and
- Community-based engagement and consultation skills.
- Representatives will be expected to:
- Coordinate and facilitate effective engagement with local residential and small business customers;
- Record and report the views, comments, questions and positions of local consumers; and
- Advocate for local customer interests as informed by those customers in the OEB's hearing process.
- Hearings in the Community
- Starting in the fall of 2016, the OEB will begin holding larger hearings, in whole or in part, in local communities impacted by applications. It is felt that this approach will allow participation by local customers; make OEB processes more accessible, open and transparent; enhance consumer trust and confidence in the regulatory process; and enhance consumer understanding and awareness of the OEB, its rate setting and decision making processes.
The Framework will initially apply only to rate cases, eventually rolling-out to all OEB cases. The Board has committed to providing further opportunities for input throughout the implementation of the Framework.
The OEB has identified the following as its next steps in the implementation of the Framework:
- Meeting with intervenors and utilities;
- Consulting with the OEB-developed Consumer Panel;
- Developing the pilot and implementation plan for Regional Consumer Representatives; and
- Developing the content and roll-out plan for the enhanced consumer website.