Nothing electrifies ratepayers like their electricity bills.
And nothing gets a rise out of readers like columnists writing about rising hydro costs. The divided email responses to a couple of recent columns mirrors the province’s electricity polarity — positive and negative electrical charges repelling one another like partisan force fields.
More power to readers — in the form of yet another column, herewith, on the mysteries of power generation.
Information is power, but bumper sticker solutions still get people charged up. When a politician claims, “All you have to do is . . . (fill in the blank) . . . to get prices under control,” you’d best unplug their pitch.
Based on an unscientific sampling from my email inbox, these are some of the hot button issues for readers:
• Critics keep complaining that Quebecers and Manitobans have better rates. Well, housing prices are also lower in Winnipeg, and equally irrelevant to Toronto’s real estate market. The topography of Manitoba, and hydrography of Quebec, can’t be replicated in Ontario, where the waters don’t flow with the same hydro-friendly forces.
• Smart meters aren’t perfect, which is why critics call them dumb. They haven’t been rolled out well, and they are operating far from potential. But they allow utilities — now and in future — to implement peak pricing and discounts that can reduce the need to build new and expensive electricity capacity. They are costly upfront, but will ultimately conserve energy, which is an undeniably good thing in an era of global warming and carbon pricing.
• The government’s energy vision missed the mark, as auditor general Bonnie Lysyk noted — with hindsight — in her annual report. Depressed demand, and an overstimulated supply, produced a glut. My critique of her report — for misleadingly proclaiming $37 billion in overspending beyond the “market price” in recent years — sparked a rebuttal from Lysyk that was conspicuously silent on the key point: The so-called market price she cites is merely an hourly “spot price,” which can’t be counted on to secure electricity when it’s needed in future, just as the Last Minute Club can’t guarantee you a seat during Spring Break.
• The auditor makes light of the fact that Ontario sometimes sells surplus power below cost at off-peak times, but that’s little different from airline seat sales during low season. It’s not catastrophic mismanagement, merely common sense to hold the occasional sale in order to recoup fixed costs, whether it’s an empty seat, overripe fruit, or surplus power. Nor should a temporary oversupply prompt us to abandon energy conservation, which was implied in the auditor’s analysis describing such efforts as a waste of money.
• That’s not to say the Liberals didn’t overdo their love affair with renewables, eternally unrequited: The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine when you need the power. Sadly, the wind blows mostly at night, or during shoulder seasons, when our demand is lower, compounding the perils of oversupply (and overpaying).
• The stealth privatization of our system by the Liberals exacerbated the political and fiscal costs of relocating those unpopular gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga: Private contractors failed to woo and win local support for the locations, then demanded compensation for the cancellations that followed. Had the Liberals allowed publicly owned Ontario Power Generation to bid on gas-fired generation, they could have counted on better public consultations, and avoided costly litigation (Crown corporations don’t sue the Crown).
• Coal is the major reason why electricity can seem cheaper in neighbouring U.S. states that are still addicted to it. But factor in the sliding Canadian dollar, and those price differences largely vanish. Perhaps our artificially high petro-dollar generated an illusory cost-comparison all those years. Today, those cross-border rates are roughly at par.
Responding to my column that electricity misconceptions are rampant, London Hydro CEO Vinay Sharma sent me this note:
“Everyone that speaks either against or in favour of the hydro policy/pricing, does so by manipulating the numbers. No one . . . has honestly painted the price pictures for our consumers,” he told me.
“Rates today reflect the true cost of choices we have made as a province and as a society.”
He makes a good point. We’re paying more today to pollute less tomorrow, and for being early adopters of climate change strategies. We’re also paying more today because we probably paid too little in the past for our costly nuclear reactors, saddling us with an Ontario Hydro debt hangover.
The reality is that rising bills are a combination of mix-ups and messed-up policies that have conspired against ratepayers not just over the last decade but every decade before. Price hikes can’t be blamed solely on bungling and boondoggles; they are also a result of our own societal choices, backed by all three parties, to eliminate coal-fired power plants.
We may not like higher prices, but we get the hydro we more or less deserve — or that we inherited from Mother Nature. Bumper stickers can’t change that.