Ontario ombudsman André Marin has announced a systemic investigation into billing and customer service practices at Hydro One, focusing on the transparency of the utility’s billing practices and the timeliness and effectiveness of its process for responding to customer concerns.

According to the ombudsman, complaints about Hydro One have risen steadily in recent years and more than doubled since fiscal 2011-2012. That year, the office received 232 complaints relating to Hydro One, which grew to 328 in 2012-2013 and spiked at more than 600 between April 1, 2013 and today. Most are complaints that bills are wrong, excessive, duplicated, unreasonably delayed, or “estimated” based on unclear criteria.

“In the past few years, we have seen more and more complaints from Hydro One users about bills that seem to have no bearing in reality – and about the lack of answers they get when they ask why,” said Marin in a statement.

The statement says that common complaints involved large “catch-up” bills issued to customers who had received estimated bills – or no bills – for long periods, and were given little time to pay or explanation for the amounts billed. Many people also cited long waits for inadequate information from Hydro One’s customer service operations.

In a letter to customers Hydro One president and CEO Carmine Marcello committed the utility to working openly and constructively with the ombudsman’s office, attributing billing issues to the transitioning to a new billing system last May.

“We know that approximately 3% of our customers have received estimated bills for too long and about another 2% have gone for more than 90 days without receiving a bill. While the vast majority of our customers continue to receive normal bills, some of our customers have not had a positive experience,” writes Marcello.

“We know this level of service isn’t acceptable to our customers and it’s not acceptable to Hydro One. We have taken aggressive steps to fix the issues. We are reaching out to customers, we are fixing the exceptions and we have brought in additional staff to listen to customers and help work through their billing enquiries.”

The investigation will be conducted by the Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT). It will be completed within nine months, after which a report and recommendations will be produced.

Hydro One is Ontario’s largest electricity company, with 1.4 million customers.