Sunday April 20, 2014

Leyne: Hydro policy changes never end

Next time a cabinet minister confidently outlines the government’s vision of the future, keep B.C.’s electricity policies in mind.

Based on developments there in the last six months, those firmly pronounced policies could last only as long as the minister does. Former energy minister Rich Coleman laid down any number of directions on that front during two years on the job, and left the impression they were all official B.C. Liberal doctrine, now and for all time.

Then Bill Bennett was sworn into the portfolio last June. He must be getting dizzy from all the abrupt about-faces he has ordered in the last six months.

Since being sworn in following the election, he has up-ended a batch of electricity policies. B.C. Liberal power policies are now only faintly recognizable from the versions that Coleman and others used to preach.

The government has done a screeching 180-degree turn on several fronts. They’ll say it’s about adapting to changed circumstances. But nothing particularly dramatic has changed in the power department. They’ve just put a new person in charge, and he has changed the ministry’s direction on at least a half-dozen major issues.

Bennett’s predecessor insisted for two years that smart meters were non-negotiable. Everybody had to have one for the smart grid to work, despite the fact several thousand customers had worked themselves into a state about supposed side-effects.

After a few weeks on the job, Bennett decided to drop the hard line. He introduced some opt-outs, so the meters are no longer mandatory. People can get their meters read manually, if they want to pay more.

Coleman and a long line of energy ministers before him insisted B.C. would go to the mat to recover money owed by California utilities for B.C. power supplied at premium prices during a 2000 crisis. B.C. stuck to its guns, racking up a fortune in legal bills. Two months into the job, after B.C. lost a skirmish in the war, Bennett capitulated. He gave up the fight, and B.C. ate a $750-million loss.

But those were just warm-ups for the reversals he pulled two weeks ago, when he laid out electricity prices.

For years, governments of all stripes have dinged B.C. Hydro for a few hundred million dollars a year as a required “dividend.” It has been part of the bottom line for years.
Under Bennett’s plan, that contribution is going to disappear over time. It will drop sharply in 2020 and disappear in 2021.

Bennett plans to turn rate-setting back over to the B.C. Utilities Commission three years from now. The agency will undergo a core review as well, to “increase the effectiveness and efficiency” of the outfit. You don’t hear energy ministers talk about increasing BCUC effectiveness very often.

Previous cabinet ministers spent hours defending Hydro deferral accounts after the auditor general rapped them for shunting costs far into the future.

But Bennett wants to start paying those accounts down in 2015. One more will be created to spread costs around, but it will have a defined paydown plan. All this and more is now government policy. It’s going to last 10 years. Or until the next person takes over the post.

Les Leyne writes for the Victoria Times Colonist.

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