Are we being fuellish?

A NB Power meter reader leaving a truck running while reading meters inspired a citizen to contact the Moncton Times and Transcript.  A story complaining about the choice of vehicle and the apparent lack of concern for the extra cost of fuel drew mixed responses from readers.   Of course, running a business is complicated but energy should not be ignored especially when we are nearly at peak oil.

Utilities know that the day of the meter reader is nearly over.  The number of “smart” meters is increasing each year both at NB Power and Saint John Energy, or it should be.  Apparently, NB Power has 100,000 of these time and energy savers.  One definition of a “smart” meter is one that can measure various quantities like kWh’s, and transfer that information wirelessly back to the utility. There are various technologies that suppliers use but the idea is the same – accurate billing at a lower cost by using new technology with less manpower, vehicles and fuel.  NB Power’s technology requires only that an employee drive by the neighbourhood to receive the signals.

Saint John Energy has an interesting advantage due to compact geography permitting the smart meters to talk directly to the office giving kWh, indication of voltage level and indirectly, whether the power is off at a particular location.

So what is the business case payback now for a massive changeout program? Certainly it is less expensive to simply replace old meters when they are outmoded or broken.  Should we proceed at a faster pace given the cost of fuel and greenhouse gases?

Over the past year, large increases in the cost of fuel for meter reading have likely improved the economics.  Secondly, a 20% decline in the price of crude this month shows that conservation will lower prices.  In fact it doesn’t take a huge reduction in volume to greatly affect what we pay.   Could an accelerated change in meter reading system be a part of an effective conservation effort?  The cost of West Texas intermediate crude averaged $72 in 2007 and may average $119 or higher in 2008. This is a difference of $47 a barrel or a $1.47 trillion dollars increase in cost for the people of the world.  The people of Canada are paying $34 billion more this year as a direct result of inadequate conservation putting pressure on lagging production levels. (2M barrels a day x 365 days x $47)

Could NB Power by itself drive down the world price of oil?  Unlikely, although they do burn a large amount of oil and fuel.  The effort has to include each of us, including companies like NB Power, making serious efforts to choose a smaller footprint.   When I once asked a vehicle coordinator why NB Power was supplying half tons for some employees, the answer given was trucks have a better resale value.  Well, that doesn’t appear to be the case now.  Michel Losier notes that NB Power has 11 hybrid vehicles.  What percentage would that be among the hundreds of vehicles in their fleet?

There are other examples of a lack of recognition of the importance of conservation – An employee lives in one city, but travels morning and night to work in another city at company expense.

Rainy days have seen NB Power’s larger vehicles cruising around burning diesel instead of being parked.  This is a productivity issue, as well as lack of respect for the world’s non-renewable resources. NB Power indicates that they are doing their best to encourage the proper use of vehicles, fuel, and productivity.  These are serious issues no doubt, and pose a number of million dollars in savings each year.  But these are small potatoes really when you look at the cost of coal and oil rising like a meteor.

An interesting commentary came from the Energy and Utility Board on June 26 of this year.  In a report to the minister, they virtually threw up their hands stating that the information provided by NB Power did not permit them to offer a valid opinion on whether the recent 3% rate increase was justified.  What is it between NB Power and the EUB that they can’t transfer needed financial data in a simple and understandable way?  Is NB Power running a shell game or is the EUB a poor communicator of their needs?

The Minister of Energy indicated that he doesn’t have a solution yet for this company that acts as an integrated utility but is legally split into several companies.   It would be interesting to have an Energy minister who addresses this and other serious problems, but more and more, it appears we will have to wait until 2010.  The EUB might think about adding regulation at Saint John Energy, where there are some issues similar to NB Power.

* Minister Jack Keir announced on Friday that “two experts”  William Marshall and William Thompson will study the situation related to NB Power’s corporate structure and make recommendations in a month.  William Thompson was Deputy Minister of Energy overseeing the breakup of NB Power from an integrated utility.   …. It’s nice to be trusted to fix what you broke.

The Real Desperados

The Eagles landed on August 2 in Moncton.  Appearing on stage with their suits and ties they didn’t appear to me to be desperados.  At over a hundred dollars per ticket, and they likely get a large cut of the take, these guys fall into the pirate category.  But they are a professional band and they make great music.  The other bands were excellent as well.

First of all, I’m not a hard core Eagles fan but you run out of excuses for not going to these concerts and compromise is the nature of life.  So I accompanied a real Eagles fan and tried not to be a stick in the mud, especially when we were … trudging through the mud.  Let me give you a tip.  Surrounded by 65,000 people or what seems like a million people in the twilight, and you see a large gap in the crowd, it’s not a carefully maintained transportation corridor.  No, that’s the mud field.

Having a technical background can be a curse when you should be just enjoying the moment and swaying with the music.  You see the infrastructure and wonder how it could be better organized.  Hundreds of people lining up to buy beer tickets, then lining up again to get the beer and you drink it in a beer corral.  Only in New Brunswick where the liquor laws are, shall I say, unique.  Lining up 50 deep to buy pizza.  Maybe there isn’t a way to satisfy the needs of such a large crowd.

What amazed me were the excellent LED screens that provide a gigantic view of the bands on stage for most of the fans who are too far away to actually see the band as other than minuscule figures in the distance.  It struck me that we retain an illusion of being at a concert with the band when in reality, only the front, perhaps 5000 people, are actually there.  The rest of us are watching a super big TV in a field with super audio speakers and the band could just as well be in California or Los Vegas or Timbuktu.

We ended up next to a fisherman from Grand Manan and behind some Newfoundlanders who traveled a long way.  We all had a great time but will we still be able to drive those distances to concerts in the future.  How are we going to maintain the good things we enjoy today or perhaps improve on them? Is the Magnetic Hill concert model really sustainable in the long term?

Suppose that we had smaller outdoor or stadium venues in five, six or more New Brunswick sites and likewise all across North American and the world.  We might have large screens and good audio speakers in place at those sites with the technology to have the bands play at various locations somewhere in the world.  The signal is shared worldwide.

If 1000 sites around the world had 5,000 people paying $10 a head, it would bring in $50 million in one day.  That seems to be reasonable money for any event or promoter for a one-day project.  People could walk, bicycle or bus to local events.   Local bands get to play as part of the package and get great exposure either just locally or perhaps internationally.  We saw part of this technology implemented in the worldwide Live Earth concert in 2007 where a 24-hour concert with 150 artists was shown around the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer and I might be the only one.  Purists will argue that it’s not the same if the bands aren’t physically on site and they may be right.  Down the road though, we may not have a choice, as fuel costs reduce the viewing audience to less than required by promoters.  Perhaps it’s the time to think about our options.

I ran into a NB Power employee at the concert.  Although he looks like a desperado, he assured me he wasn’t getting a bonus.  It triggered a crazy thought.  Are there desperados here in New Brunswick? Are executives at NB Power saddling up for a bag of gold equal to 25% of their salaries?  OK, call it a bonus incentive scheme if you wish.  It seems to be an inside job though, as Chairman McGuire wants them to take the money.  He’s afraid they may leave the gang and he wants them to meet targets (that they will probably set themselves).   The amount of the increase is too small to be seen in rate increases so it doesn’t really affect New Brunswickers greatly.   I find the logic of his arguments to be less than convincing and lacking a little common sense in these tough economic times.

Those NB Power executives I know are very smart and hard working.  The money isn’t the important thing for them. Why were the Deputy Minister’s bonuses announced a week later?  Did they scream me too or were they the real reason for the program?  Was NB Power just the convenient punching bag? So who’s pushing this boondoggle?  Will the real desperado please stand up?