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.

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One comment

  1. Rob · August 19, 2008

    If NB Power is to remain a Crown Corporation, I’d like to see it run as a publicly traded company would be. Every citizen of NB is a shareholder in NB Power. We should have access to all financial information, be provided with Annual Reports, and have access to an Annual General Meeting where the board must answer to shareholders.

    According to Minister Keir, all options are on the table, save complete privatization. I can’t imagine a month is enough time to conside “all the options”, except unless we’re just rehashing old ideas. The only thing old ideas have given us are billions in crippling public debt.

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