14 January 2008

It's not a contract to sell power

For some bizarre reason, CBC news online is claiming that Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro announced an agreement to sell Lower Churchill power today.
Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro announced an agreement Monday to sell electricity from the Lower Churchill megaproject to consumers in the Maritimes and the northeastern U.S.
Hydro did no such thing, as the very next paragraph of the CBC story makes plain:
The Crown corporation said it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Nova Scotia Power and Emera Inc. "to explore the possibility of bringing energy" to the Maritimes and New England markets.
That's what the official news release said, too. it's just another memorandum of understanding to explore the possibility.  That's about as far away from a contract to sell power as it is possible to get, except for not having an MOU at all.  No company is obliged to do anything except study.

The only time people should get excited about the project going ahead is if the provincially-owned Crown corporation announces it actually has a contract to sell power to someone other than Newfoundland Power. So far, the only people on the hook to pay for the project are the provincial taxpayers, especially those on the northeast Avalon.

That's pretty much a captive market.

Even the Premier isn't sure the thing will go ahead.  Just a few weeks ago, he officially rated the prospect of the project getting the green light at 50%.

And while we're at it, consumers should beware of the project and the impact it may have on their power rates.

Under changes made to the Electrical Power Control Act in 2006, power rates in the province can be linked to Hydro's business actions that may not be related to electricity generation. The Williams administration added a subsection to a previous section of the Act to exempt the crown utility from a restriction on its business activities.
Restrictions on business
24. (1) Subject to this Act, a retailer shall not engage or invest in or carry on any business or activity other than the business of the production, transmission, distribution or retailing of power and the business or activity that is generally related to it.
(2) For greater certainty, subsection (1) shall not apply to a person who controls a retailer, including a corporation referred to in paragraph 23(3)(b).
(3) This section does not apply to Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. (added in 2006)
The problem is that under section three of the same Act, the Public Utilities Board is responsible for setting power rates such that: 
(a) the rates to be charged, either generally or under specific contracts, for the supply of power within the province
(iii) should provide sufficient revenue to the producer or retailer of the power to enable it to earn a just and reasonable return as construed under the Public Utilities Act so that it is able to achieve and maintain a sound credit rating in the financial markets of the world, ...
If Hydro winds up involved in any other business activity besides electricity generation, as it may do under the Hydro corporation act, then it will affect power rates.

But then again, if the Lower Churchill corporation is set up primarily to export power outside the province, it isn't clear what effect this section of the act might have  - if any - on power rates as they relate to the portion of the power Hydro plans to ship to the island to replace the current oil-fired plant at Holyrood.

The 2006 changes altered substantively the intent of the original act on the hydro corporation, passed in 1977 and amended by the legislature following the 1989 general election:

Special Hydro provisions
17. (1) In considering the rates charged by the hydro corporation for the purpose of a reference under this Act, the public utilities board shall take no account of expenditures or revenues of the hydro corporation or its subsidiaries that are not attributable to the supplying of power to retailers and rural customers.
(2) Where the hydro corporation supplies power to a user who is neither a retailer nor a rural customer, the hydro corporation shall use its best endeavours to obtain for that power the rates or a class of rates that would be compatible with the power policy declared by section 3.
(3) Where the hydro corporation is unable to apply the rates or the class of rates referred to in subsection (2) because of public policy or existing contracts, the Lieutenant-Governor in Council shall enter into those financial arrangements or other arrangements that may be necessary to enable the hydro corporation to comply with the power policy declared by section 3 in respect of those other users of its power.

It also changes the intention of the 1994 version of the Act, which established clear regulatory control by the Public Utilities Board of power allocation and rates within the province, provided a mechanism to redirect power from Churchill Falls under certain circumstances and ensured that consumer rate would be based on electricity generation, primarily for power used within the province.