It’s all in the Performance

Recently, a small industrial owner asked for advice.  He was thinking about converting equipment from oil to electric as a way of saving money.  A quick look at his electric bill indicated that his average cost was 16 cents per kWh, which is relatively high.  His rate for furnace oil was actually lower than his kWh rate and conversion to electric would only worsen his situation. Although most business people are very smart, few understand the complexities of the small industrial rate and the variable first block.  NB Power’s rate design is intended to flatten demand but does it achieve anything but costing some customers more money? The solution chosen by this industrial customer was to reduce the size of compressors and install ground source heat pumps for space heating.  This case made me reflect about NB Power’s lack of progress on rate reform and much more.

In the rarified altitude of NB Power’s 9th floor, there are bigger fish to fry than rates today.  The Lepreau refit, with fuel costs at $1 million per day, must be weighing heavily on David Hay’s mind.  It’s now three months late or $90 million over budget.

His salary and bonus has been in the news virtually every day.   Over at Nova Scotia Power, their CEO is paid $600,000 per year.  Remember Jim Hankinson, the well-respected CEO of NB Power from 1996 to 2002?  He’s now working as CEO at Ontario Power Generation for $1.6 million a year.  That’s one of the companies generated when Ontario Hydro was broken up by the privatization / de-regulation ideology prevalent several years ago.

Although his salary is high by New Brunswick standards, perhaps we should be asking another question – Is David Hay doing the job that he is hired to do in a competent manner? And to be fair, how are the groups directly associated with NB Power playing their roles.  – The Energy and Utilities Board, The Department of Energy and Efficiency New Brunswick.  Are they doing a good job?

The Minister of Energy Jack Keir is ultimately responsible for NB Power.   Mr Keir has indicated that he wants to have NB Power run as an efficient business and operate at arm’s length to the government.   Let’s take the issue of company structure, something that is really outside the domain of CEO Hay.  The previous Conservative government split the corporation up into 5 units and incurred multi million dollars costs for no obvious benefit.  This Liberal government has given no clear direction to NB Power to re-integrate the corporation and reduce costs.  A report was commissioned back in July 2008 with Bill Thompson and Bill Marshall as the authors.  Has this report been given to the minister?

The Department’s major interests are the new refinery and private sector financing and building a second Lepreau unit with power to be sold to New England states.  There are a few problems blocking this project: inadequate transmission capacity south of Maine, no long term contracts signed from US utilities, an unfinished design for the new ACR-1000, and an uncertain future for AECL.  As well, the earliest in-service date would be 2017, the construction cost could be $7.5 billion dollars, and the possibility of cheaper photovoltaic energy being available to customers before that date may be the financial ruin of utilities who buy into the deal.  Aside from these immense obstacles and uncertainties, apparently it’s going well.

If we look over at the EUB and it’s predecessor’s performance over the past twenty years, most objective observers would agree that it has failed to reform and regulate rates.   A couple of examples – Any rate increase below 3% is not subject to review and the revenue-cost ratios are consistently out of the range suggested by the EUB.  Large customers get better rates than small customers and on it goes.  Our energy watchdog is just a cute poodle but it’s not all their fault.  Let’s face it, government wants it that way – An agency with responsibility but little authority.

The folks at Efficiency NB want to see more efficient use of energy and that’s exactly what we need both for NB Power and the citizens of this province.  Roughly three years into their mandate, we see little solid evidence that the agency is achieving its goals.  What percentages of homes in the province have been upgraded?   1%?  2%?    Their annual reports are astoundingly short on detail and context.

So, are EUB, DOE, ENB, NB Power doing a good job?  Respectively, how does ineffective, incompetent, ineffective and not good enough, sound to you?

May I make a few quick suggestions?

1) Give the EUB authority or eliminate the EUB and roll its functions into the Energy Department.  Without real rate reform, we have no incentive to conserve.

2) Premier Graham needs to accept that the energy hub is unlikely to produce anything of value, and re-task the Energy department to do its real job. A maybe solution in 2017 doesn’t cut it.

3) Efficiency NB has not lived up to its mandate.  It has no sense of urgency, and requires attention from government.

4) The Energy Minister should be the chairman of NB Power’s board of directors.  Recombine the corporation into one business unit.

Our modern society provides amazing benefits that result from the incredible energy of liquid fuels such as oil.  Our level of usage is not sustainable and change must begin immediately if we are to re-organize our very survival. The Graham government needs a complete energy reboot.  The question is whether he will press the button or whether the people will do it for him in 2010?

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