Saturday, 16 February 2013

Minimizing the inevitable rate hike: What is best for BC Hydro - to be run by its review panel or independent regulation of the past three decades?

By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun August 23, 2011

The recent report by the panel reviewing BC Hydro's electricity rates triggered a predictable flurry of conflicting comments from entrenched ideologues. One side blamed private power producers for rising rates while the other blamed the utility's mismanagement and government environmental policy. With the rampant distortions, it gets confusing. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, throughout the world, new supplies of electricity cost more. In British Columbia, some increase in electricity rates is inevitable as we blend new higher-cost supplies with the low-cost power from our hydropower legacy. This is true whether that new supply is provided by private companies or a Crown corporation like BC Hydro.

Second, evidence from around the world shows that for small projects private power tends to be cheaper than public power, but for large projects there is little difference. With small projects, there are substantial costs associated with preliminary assessments of potential sites and, since only a tiny fraction of these are finally developed, many private investors incur losses.

If only BC Hydro was allowed to develop small projects in B.C., ratepayers would pay for these losses, just as ratepayers paid for BC Hydro's write-offs of more than $100 million on Site C two decades ago and over $100 million on a failed Vancouver Island natural gas plant a decade ago. In spite of these past costly mistakes by Hydro, the global evidence generally indicates that well-managed crown corporations can develop large projects just as cost-effectively as private companies.

Third, environmental policy is a factor in rising electricity rates everywhere. B.C.'s zero-emission electricity policy reflects our willingness to join many jurisdictions around the world (the US, Europe, China) in incurring higher electricity rates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If we cared only about having more money in our pockets today, and not for the future of the planet, we should build nothing but coal and natural gas plants. Only a few extremists, who arrogantly deny what scientists are frantically saying, still make this argument.

Fourth, electricity self-sufficiency also increases rates in the shortrun, but this extra cost may be justified as an insurance premium to reduce the risk of higher prices during regional shortages in future, and also the amount of power B.C. must purchase from polluting coal plants in Alberta. To ensure self-sufficiency when our hydropower production is low (because of low water flows), Hydro can build extra capacity or sign additional long-term contracts with independent producers. In both cases, Hydro
will have to sell surplus power at (usually) lower spot prices in years of medium and high water flow. We can have lower rates for awhile by not being self-sufficient. But like any decision not to insure, it may backfire and result in much higher rates and more pollution if we guess wrong. People who pretend away this trade-off are being disingenuous.

Fifth, regulated monopolies manage their costs better than unregulated monopolies. BC Hydro has long been regulated by the BC Utilities Commission, but the Clean Energy Act last year removed much of its expenditures from that independent control. As I argued on these pages at the time, this alone can increase upward pressure on rates. (When I chaired the commission in the '90s, our executive director, Bill Grant, liked to say: "The only thing better in life than being a regulated monopoly, is being an unregulated monopoly.")

The BC Hydro review panel has essentially taken over the commission's function. But one has to ask why this ad hoc, politically driven oversight is preferable to the systematic, independent regulation of Hydro of the past three decades. The review panel's suggestion that Hydro's rate application be cut in half - from annual increases of 10 per cent down to five per cent - is probably what the commission would have ordered anyway. It reminds me of the mid-'90s, when the panel I chaired rejected a Hydro rate application, even though Hydro's witnesses testified the increase was crucial for sustaining reliable service. A few years later, Hydro's CEO testified that our disciplining of the company had been the correct decision, forcing it to find efficiencies without compromising reliability.

What conclusions do I draw? The public versus private power debate is mostly a red herring. Acquiring new power, protecting the environment, and energy self-reliance all increase rates. But these rate increases can be minimized if we re-establish independent regulation of BC Hydro by the commission. 

Finally, above all, ignore the ideologues.

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