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Rob Bennett , NS Power, President and CEO, walks down Lower Water street toward the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board offices in Halifax on Friday. (PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL)
Rob Bennett , NS Power, President and CEO, walks down Lower Water street toward the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board offices in Halifax on Friday. (PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL)

energy

Nova Scotia bristles over power project Add to ...

That the president of the power company in this province has been compared to Darth Vader shows how intensely Nova Scotians feel about their power situation.

It doesn’t help either that Nova Scotia Power’s headquarters, opened last year in a century-old power station renovated at a cost of $53.4-million, sits like a glass fortress on the edge of Halifax Harbour. That simply reinforces in the minds of power-obsessed Nova Scotians their image of the company as the evil empire because of rates and executive compensation they consider far too high. Never mind that the building is totally energy efficient.

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Power is not only expensive in Nova Scotia – rates are among the highest in Canada – but extremely controversial, and has been for decades as the province has gone from burning oil to dirty Nova Scotia coal to cleaner coal imported from Colombia and Venezuela to heat and light itself.

But Rob Bennett, president of Nova Scotia Power (NSP), a privately owned utility that is small compared with the big power Crown corporations in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, says he’s just a businessman trying to deliver good service to 490,000 customers and fulfill a mandate legislated by the province to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Provincial legislation requires that 25 per cent of the province’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2015, and 40 per cent by 2020.

“Overall, we are looking at how we transform the energy landscape so we become greater masters of our destiny,” Premier Darrell Dexter said in an interview.

To put this into perspective, 80 per cent of energy came from burning coal in 2006; that decreased to 57 per cent last year, and NSP expects the number to be less than 50 per cent this year. Nova Scotia has eight coal-fired plants; NSP has a $500-million fuel bill, including $250- to $300-million spent to buy coal from out of the province.

And so part of the portfolio Mr. Dexter is talking about – at least 10 per cent – includes electricity from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, which is to provide 35 years of stable-priced renewable energy for the province.

Last week, the controversy reached new levels when the Newfoundland government announced the project will cost $7.4-billion instead of $6.2-billion. Mr. Dexter immediately called an emergency debate in the legislature to repeat his support for the project.

But what still isn’t clear is whether NSP’s parent company, Emera, which will spend $1.2-billion to build an undersea cable from Newfoundland to Cape Breton in return for the hydro, will have to pay more.

Nova Scotians will bear part of the cost of the so-called Maritime Link through a rate hike. How much it will be remains a mystery until a federal loan guarantee is in place. This has provoked outrage from the opposition.

“How can you agree to something without understanding what the cost will be? Give us an estimate,” Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said. “The fact that the government is fully committing itself to a project it can’t even tell Nova Scotians what it will mean to them on the bottom line makes no sense.”

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie also questions the rush to support such a “gigantic project” without a “thorough analysis of the alternatives.”

“If we are truly interested in building our economy by having lower power prices, then we have a duty to the next generation to compare Muskrat to all of the available alternatives, and that is not happening,” Mr. Baillie said.

Mr. Dexter says the “best position” for Nova Scotia is “to have a portfolio where we can ramp up and down various pieces.”

For example, 13 per cent of the province’s energy has come from natural gas this year; next year, it will be 25 per cent, he said. The province is also pushing wind power – NSP has 174 wind turbines, up from about half a dozen four years ago. Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Sept. 12, wind generation accounted for 36 per cent of the total electricity made in Nova Scotia – a record. It costs about $100 to produce one megawatt of power from wind compared with $40 for natural gas and coal.

Mr. Bennett of NSP notes, meanwhile, that the price of coal has increased 70 per cent over the past eight years: “So the more you that you can get from a stably priced renewable energy resource, the better off we will be in the long term, a little more expensive today, but cheaper in the long term as fossil fuels increase.”

As for the Star Wars comparison, a resident recently wrote on the NSP website: “Does Darth Vader’s theme music play every time Rob Bennett walks into a room?” Replied the NSP: “Unfortunately, Rob doesn’t have theme music. While electricity can be pretty powerful, as far as we’ve noticed, Rob hasn’t yet mastered the way of the force.”

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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