How the sale of NB Power affects residential customers

What will residential or commercial customers get from this deal? Will anybody really notice a freeze in prices as gas and food rise? Perhaps over time. Here’s a quick way to determine your five year theoretical savings from the sale of NB Power. Just take your total electric bill for the year and multiply by 47%.

The 47% comes from avoiding compounding increases of 3% per year for five years. We all received in the mail the example of a house that uses roughly 29,000 kWh per year, who will save $1,392 over the five year period as compared to NB Power remaining owned by us.

In contrast, an apartment dweller like me, heated by natural gas, would save $327 over the same five years on an annual bill of $700. I’ve been able to control my excitement over this potential $65 a year bonanza? That’s maybe two tanks of gas or 5 bottles of cheap wine.

Before I get overwrought with our good fortune, consider how much the average Quebec resident will pay less than our frozen rates – $4,000 less over five years.
The deal is being presented as a money saver but if our goal is to save a lot of money on our power bills, then the logical step would be to get real Quebec rates for residential power. That, however, would only happen if we were citizens of Quebec. Wait now, don’t laugh, there’s big money savings here! No nasty contracts to worry about! Just one big happy family.

OK, if you’re not buying that amalgamation thing right now, what are the residential contract terms being offered to us by Premier Graham?

The proposed deal freezes NB Power residential and commercial rates for five years. Starting in year six, the energy portion of the bill (roughly 65%) would be increased at the level of the NB consumer price index. The other 35% of the bill, costs related to the transmission and distribution networks, would be regulated by the EUB, include a rate of return on investment, and be passed on to customers. Lepreau replacement energy cost deferral would fall into distribution costs and raise rates in year 6, perhaps substantially. If the deferral is $500 million, then we are talking about a 5% rate increase. As well, any costs of supply due to usage above the 9.5 TWh heritage power would accumulate and be charged in year six.

This contract is for eternity, and must conceive of unknown future conditions. Newfoundland now receives less than ¼ of a cent for each kWh they sell from Churchill Falls. Not so good a deal for them. We are going to pay roughly 8.3 cents after the deal (average of all customers)

World oil production will decline and will stress the contract in ways not considered. Although the Minister of Energy Jack Keir indicates that the heritage pool has a small margin for growth of load (I’m guessing 5% if distribution losses are included). He may not be considering the plight of oil heated homes, whose owners were starting to panic in 2008 as light fuel oil price skyrocketed. Only the fall of the economy and oil prices prevented a disaster towards wintertime.

New Brunswickers use 282 million liters of furnace oil annually as compared to the Atlantic Provinces total of 1.4 billion. As oil prices rise, about 25% of NB Power customers could turn to electric heat, and that’s 2.5 TWh of possible new load. Because this oil is used over five months of winter, conversion would require a high capacity that we would need to meet. (700 MW of peaking power, or more) Not a lot of those customers can migrate to gas due to lack of pipes in their street and we don’t have an energy plan or even a real “conversion to wood” plan.

As Claude, a reader from Quebec, quite rightly points out, the peaking character of electric heat presents a serious problem for power suppliers to meet. NB Power’s peak summer load is 1600 MW and 3200 MW in the winter. The difference is electric heat. Electric Thermal storage units (ETS) are a device that can work for residential or commercial customers and Time of Use (TOU) meters to store heat from off peak times and use it during the day but little interest has been shown by this province. We haven’t seen the need to adapt.

So we don’t want to be driving electric heat onto fossil fuel plants like Coleson Cove which has an efficiency of less than 40%, and very high fuel costs. But that is exactly what will happen without a plan. And we will go over the heritage pool limit and it will cost more than we are told.

For those who don’t believe oil prices will rise again, consider this article in the English newspaper, the Guardian: a second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organization was that it was “imperative not to anger the Americans” but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. “We have [already] entered the ‘peak oil’ zone. I think that the situation is really bad.”

Really bad? I don’t hear a word from our government about these problems.

Is this an offer we can’t refuse?

There is a natural resistance to change that resides deep inside every one of us. Researchers indicate that acceptation of change is easier when the decision is fully explained – how it was made, why it was made, what the alternatives were, and how it will impact the corporation (in this case, province) and individuals. Based on public reaction so far, the information campaign of the government may have been deficient.

It’s been difficult for many to “buy-into” the sale of NB Power due to the change in story. For years, NB Power has been praised as a crown jewel, one that contributes greatly to the well being of the province. Now we have the spectacle of the government turning on the company, suggesting that is mortally debt-ridden, that it has been mismanaged for generations, and we need to sell it off. If the first story is now a lie, then is the present story actually the truth?

The demonization of NB Power may have merit to some extent, or be necessary to provide the “why it was made”, but it is at the political level where the buck should stop. It is the political classes who have insisted that necessary rate increases be rolled back, that their friends be hired, or not generally allowed professional management.

If NB Power is operated as a business, then it cannot respond to political influence and it’s only benefit to the province is via lower rates. On the other hand, if it submits to the chicanery of political influence, then it becomes ineffective and perhaps a burden on the public by its indebtedness. This is the classic conflict of the capitalist versus state-owned enterprise. While either can work, the principal difference is that financial discipline imposed by the state is less rigorous than the private model.

What is interesting is the path of two public utilities. In the 60’s, Quebec Hydro became the sole developer of new hydro facilities, started nationalizing the patchwork of power companies and created a huge state-owned revenue generator for their province. In 2008, HQ paid a dividend of $2.25 billion built on the wealth of hydro power.

Here, in New Brunswick, we have been on the downhill trail financially for the past thirty years for a number of reasons. In a number of instances, starting with integration of Lepreau into the rate base, inadequate rate increases encouraged debt to soar. There is a saying by mechanics that you can pay me now or pay me later. Well, we’re at that “later” time, it seems.

Our government has been negotiating with Quebec for the better part of a year and recently unveiled a framework for an agreement, called a memorandum of understanding (MOU). It is now signed and further discussion will bring forward a detailed agreement for signature in the spring of 2010.
So let’s talk about the deal as it has been presented to us. HQ proposes to pay us $4.75 billion dollars for the assets of NB Power that it wants. This includes the hydro plants such as Mactaquac, among others, the transmission and distribution system but not the thermal plants such as Dalhousie, Grand Lake and Courtenay Bay which will be closed. Coleson Cove (heavy oil) and Belledune (coal) will remain the assets of New Brunswick but be contracted to supply power at the request of HQ when needed. When judged no longer necessary, they will be decommissioned at New Brunswick’s expense.

What brings some real benefit to New Brunswick is that HQ will sign a supply contract to deliver two blocks of power annually – firstly, 4.5 Terrawatt-hours for industrial customers above 100 kW minimum demand (HQ rate M), and above 5000 kW (rate L). The existing rates would drop about 30% upon signing (6.99 cents to 4.79 cents per kWh), and follow HQ increases for the first five years
After five years, the rate increases would be determined by several items. The energy component would rise by the New Brunswick Consumer Price Index (CPI-NB).

Although the CPI has typically run at 1.9% in recent years, it could rise considerably higher in inflationary times. Given the printing presses pumping out US dollars south of the border, we could be in for significant inflation in the near future.

As well, any power usage greater than the 4.5 TWh heritage pool would be supplied by prices bid in a competitive process governed by the EUB, our public regulator. We don’t know much about this process but we can safely assume that the price would tend to increase rates of the original pool. The transmission and distribution component of the rates would be determined by the EUB based on giving HQ a return on its investment in those facilities. How much will this add to the “1.9 %”? Given that we must upgrade the links with HQ, it could be significant.

We do know that the savings in the first year to industries is $91.6 million or roughly 80% of the benefit, according to a CBC report. According to the President of HQ, Thierry Vandal, it was New Brunswick who decided how the division of benefits would be accorded. If we were to consider only the industrial benefits package, this would indeed be an offer quite difficult to refuse. But there is much more to this story.