Recently, the Ontario Energy Board announced details of the much anticipated “Consumer Engagement and Representation Framework.” The focus of the planned new framework is on providing local consumers with greater access to and representation within OEB processes. The goal is to give residential consumers and local small businesses a stronger voice in the OEB’s decision making. While there had been some expectation (as we reported here) that the new framework would effectively replace the existing intervenor model, the planned changes are better described as complementary to the existing model.
An overview of the new framework was presented to utilities and intervenors in mid-May 2016. Details of this overview are set out in presentation materials found on the OEB’s “Giving Ontario Energy Consumers a Stronger Voice” webpage. As explained in the Backgrounder and Presentation from the OEB, the new framework will educate and engage consumers in several ways including:
- An enhanced OEB consumer website and enhanced notification of proceedings – The plan is to make the OEB’s website more user-friendly with plain language guides to help consumers understand and get involved in regulatory processes (hearings). Consumers will receive notice of hearings/proceedings in various ways, including published notices, social media, email and utility bills.
- Local community meetings and hearings in the community – The use of community meetings to educate consumers about pending applications will be expanded. The goal of these sessions is to educate consumers and provide the OEB with local perspectives on what is being requested. In addition to these pre-application local meetings, the OEB also plans to hold larger hearings (in whole or in part) in the local community impacted by an application.
- New OEB “Process Counsel” to advise consumers – OEB “Process Counsel” will be available to answer consumer inquiries. The “Process Counsel” will be knowledgeable about current applications and the OEB’s processes (including how consumers can be involved). The stated goal is to reduce barriers faced by consumers who want to know how to effectively participate in an adjudicative process/hearing.
- Regional Consumer Representatives – From a process perspective, the biggest change in the new framework is the addition of “Regional Consumer Representatives.” These persons (who will apparently be selected by the OEB) will gather information from and advocate on behalf of local customers during the hearing. The Regional Consumer Representatives will be experienced in energy matters and hearing advocacy and will be expected to engage with local customers, record and report their views and advance their interests in the OEB’s hearing process. It is not clear from the OEB’s materials how the addition of Regional Consumer Representatives will apply to utilities that operate in multiple areas of Ontario (such as Hydro One, Enbridge Gas Distribution and Union Gas).
The communications from the OEB make clear that the implementation of the new framework is not intended to replace the current intervenor participation model. That being said, it is not clear how the addition of Regional Consumer Representatives will impact on the role to be played by the current intervenors who represent the views of residential and small business consumers.
The implementation of the new framework is planned to start in the Fall of 2016. Among the items that will be available at that time are the Process Counsel, community meetings and hearings in the community. Next steps include the enhanced OEB Consumer Website as of mid-2017 and the development of a pilot and implementation plan for Regional Consumer Representatives.