“There are two things on government’s mind: the rate hike and the balanced budget,” he said. B.C. Hydro will contribute about $1.8-billion in dividends over the next three years and that reliance on the Crown corporation limits just how big a stick Mr. Bennett wields.
“They want to get through the next two years somehow, but they’ve got to do something about the bow wave of those rates,” said Mr. Kariya, adding that the government may need to consider a reset for Hydro, to write down some of the debt to start fresh.
There is little appetite in Victoria for such an intervention, however. Mr. Bennett wants the corporation to behave more like a commercial operation, but he appears to be largely in agreement with B.C. Hydro’s current approach to new demand.
The Crown utility will table its integrated resource plan later this month, mapping out how it intends to meet future needs. But its draft plan offers to meet just a fraction of that potential new load. Some of the biggest demand would come from the new LNG industry that the provincial government has made a top priority. B.C. Hydro concludes that most LNG proponents will meet 90 per cent of their energy needs with natural gas. To meet the ancillary demand, Hydro proposes to build its own gas-turbine-powered electrical generation facility in the Kitimat region.
The final plan hasn’t yet been approved by the province, and a backlash is building. An internal report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, shows industrial users are frustrated by the Crown utility’s modern concept of customer service.
“Delays in transmission availability are cited as an obstacle to industrial development in British Columbia. B.C. Hydro’s transmission interconnection process is perceived as slow, cumbersome, unresponsive and expensive by customers,” the draft report, dated Oct. 4, says.
Tom Syer, senior executive for policy at the B.C. Business Council, released a report last week urging the province to take a stronger role in making sure the Crown utility becomes more nimble.
“They were, and remain, a foundation of our industrial infrastructure,” he said. “It is a critical time. We have serious competitive challenges and it is an identified issue for those who want to make big investments – they need to know B.C. Hydro’s system is working for them.”
A major policy obstacle remains the province’s climate-change targets, he said. By law, British Columbia must cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 33 per cent below 2007 levels by the year 2020.
“There is a need to reconcile and where necessary revise climate-change objectives,” Mr. Syer said. “The simple reality is you cannot do this level of development – even if we did choose to use clean electricity inputs – and meet the GHG targets.”
The Energy Minister says those are decisions that still must be made by the B.C. cabinet. But this is a government that has been consumed with the pursuit of a new LNG industry – the climate-change law was the agenda of a previous Liberal administration.
“It may make more sense to let the companies use natural gas to drive their compressors,” Mr. Bennett said. “I’m doing my best as energy minister to try to carve out some opportunity for the clean energy sector in this province to continue investing. Having said that, I can’t do that to the extent that it is going to put pressure on rates. There is enough pressure on rates already.”
Richard Stout, executive director of the Association of Major Power Customers of B.C., said ratepayers big and small all have an interest in seeing B.C. Hydro reined in. He doesn’t quibble about the infrastructure spending but suggests the province is skimming far too much profit.
“Customers would be better off if B.C. Hydro was privatized – shareholders don’t expect that kind of profit.”
The draft report by the government’s industrial rate review, which will be finalized in the coming weeks, points to government intervention as a key problem. Mr. Stout says it is time the B.C. Utilities Commission was restored as Hydro’s watchdog.
“If you don’t allow an independent regulator to get involved, then rates are going to hell in a hand basket.”
The NDP’s energy critic, John Horgan, is not against the notion of burning natural gas in lieu of renewable electricity – especially if it helps B.C. Hydro escape from its present, costly bind.
But choosing the way forward – a future of clean energy or a future that increasingly relies on burning natural gas for power – is a decision that the public should be a part of, he said.
“It’s a big pivot. Let’s let the public decide.”