14 February 2009

Hydro towers through UNESCO World Heritage sites: the editorial view

The Telegram Saturday editorial takes a dim view of NALCO’s proposal to string high voltage transmission lines through Gros Morne.

The problem is that the Gros Morne proposal, on the face of it, is hardly an acceptable option for a national park. Between a rock and a hard place, indeed.

Indeed it is.

One of the comments from a reader suggests that it is preferable to do this than keep a diesel generator running at Holyrood.

Fair enough at least for a proposition.

But the NALCO proposal doesn’t address the current electricity demand and the current utilization at Holyrood to cement the case that this massive transmission project – at least $2.0 billion in added taxpayer debt – is actually the best solution to the Holyrood problem. 

Electricity demand is not exactly skyrocketing on the island.  Two major industrial projects have died since 2005 and the Vale Inco project at Long Harbour will only suck 75 megawatts a year, when it comes on line some time around 2012.  In the meantime, the expropriation bill gifted NALCO with almost 150 megawatts of power that costs virtually nothing to run.

On top of that there are at least six other small hydro projects that have been frozen in place since the late 1990s. According to the province’s energy plan, that moratorium is due to be reviewed in 2009.

Meanwhile, Kruger was looking at a site at Silver Mountain.  NALCO itself completed studies on two others in 2006, one at Island Pont (36 MW) and another at Portland Creek (23 MW).  On top of that, AbitibiBowater had three sites under consideration in 2006:

  • Badger Shute (24 MW)
  • Red Indian Falls (42 MW), and
  • Four Mile Pond (24 MW).

There are others.

One of the problems facing any development of those alternative sources of power is the stranglehold NALCO now holds on development in the province.  The energy plan makes it clear that the government now considered NALCO to have a monopoly within the province even before it expropriated several private sector developments including Star Lake:

We believe this means the Energy Corporation should control the development of all small hydro developments for the benefit of all electricity users and determine whether to do this alone or with private sector partners. However, in the long term, the province, through the Energy Corporation, must maintain full control over any new hydroelectric generation assets. We will do this by adopting a policy that no new water rights for hydroelectric generation will be issued except to the Energy Corporation or another company acting in partnership with the Energy Corporation.

If that weren’t enough, changes to the Electrical Power Control Act – passed in 2007 but only quietly implemented after the expropriation in December 2008 – ensures that NALCO can enforce its control over future developments through the Public Utilities Board. 

NALCO isn’t famous for getting things done expeditiously.  It has taken the company the better part of a decade to implement several small wind power projects.  Efficiency and effectiveness aren’t the usual order of the day at any Crown corporation and as a recent study on Hydro-Quebec shows, taxpayers usually aren’t well-served by the behemoths.

Between a rock and a hard place, as the Telly-torialist put it,  doesn’t even begin to describe what else NALCO will come up with besides stringing power lines through a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Next thing they’ll want to add upwards of $10 billion to the public debt for something or other without any sign of a way of paying for it beyond borrowing.

Oh, wait.

They have already.