Another one of those vapid political debates about power rates broke out in the Nova Scotia media last week. Such outbursts have become commonplace over the last decade as rising fossil fuel prices have made rate increases by Nova Scotia Power almost annual events. The usual scenario has involved the opposition parties wringing their hands about the rate increases, and trying to score points by implicating the government in the heist. Then, after the high-priced lawyers and consultants have had their say, the Utility and Review Board has generally given NSP most of what it asked for in the first place.
Until 2009 it was the NDP complaining that the Tory government made rate hikes worse by collecting sales tax on electricity. Now, with the NDP and Tories in different roles, the Conservatives’ new leader Jamie Baillie is complaining that the NDP’s renewable electricity policy is driving rate hikes. The Tories have launched a web-based survey (Let’s Talk Rates.ca) to collect the public’s views on a series of loaded questions. The site takes a shot at NSP salaries and bonuses, but its prime target is the NDP’s renewable electricity plan, released in 2010.
What the NDP pre-2009 and today’s Tories have in common is that in their quest to score points on power rates they soft-pedal the problem of carbon emissions from NSP coal plants. There’s a growing consensus that the best way to get reductions in carbon emissions is to put a price on them. By removing the tax on electricity (80% of which is generated from fossil fuels) the NDP moved in the opposite direction. (As energy analyst Brendan Haley pointed out in a paper published last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives there are ways of protecting low-income consumers from high power rates that don’t involve giving a tax break to everyone or compromising environmental standards).
As for the Conservatives today, their attempt to link rate increases and renewable policies raises this question: if not renewables what? More fossil fuels and carbon emissions?
The New Democrats were at least consistent in their approach, arguing for years in favour of taking the tax off electricity, then doing just that when they gained power. The Conservatives, under Jamie Baillie, have done a green energy flip-flop, an act that so far seems to have escaped the media’s attention. For example, CBC Radio’s Don Connolly, interviewing Baillie on Information Morning facetiously chided him for abandoning his NSP friends at the posh Halifax Club, but not for ditching a decade of Nova Scotia Tory policy on green energy.
Baillie’s claim that up to a third of rate increases proposed for 2012 result from the NDP’s renewable policies is ingenuous. First off, it’s highly unlikely that evidence coming before the upcoming utility board hearing will show that a third of the 2012 increase comes from renewables. But even if that is case, it’s seems clear that any green-related increases in 2012 are the result of policies initiated not by the NDP, but by the Conservative governments of John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald.
Since coming to power in 2009, the NDP have made some significant moves on green electricity. Two of those actually slowed down initiatives inherited from the Conservatives. Nova Scotia Power was given more time to meet a mercury emission limits, and granted a one-year extension on a Conservative-imposed deadline for increasing green power purchases from independent producers. A third move by the NDP (for which Nova Scotia received national recognition) was to formalize regulations, first proposed by the Conservatives, capping carbon emission from Nova Scotia Power. The NDP have also embraced the Lower Churchill power project as a vehicle for 40% renewable electricity by 2020, but that has been endorsed both by Jamie Baillie and the Liberals.
Meeting Tory targets
One NDP policy that looks distinctly greener than the ones handed down from the Tories is the 2015 renewable energy target. Under the Conservatives, regulations called for 20% renewable electricity by 2013 (it’s now about 15%). Under the NDP, the plan is 25% by 2015, with a small portion of that to be provided through community feed-in tariffs.
Note the dates. Under regulations brought in by the Conservative, significant expenditures would have been required in 2012 to move from 15% to 20% renewables by 2013. It follows that NDP policies can be fingered only for costs associated with bumping the percentage from 20% to 25% between 2013 and 2015. This seems to have escaped media attention, including the deep thinkers on the Halifax Chronicle-Herald editorial page. In an otherwise insightful editorial, they muddy the waters. While ignoring the impact of regulations passed almost five years ago under the Tories, the Herald suggests that a few not-yet-built small green power projects are somehow responsible for the latest round of proposed rate hikes.
Instead of uncritically accepting Jamie Bailie’s questionable claims, journalists should be asking him to back them up. They might also inquire about his repudiation of past Conservative efforts to green Nova Scotia’s electricity sector, and the party’s new plan (if any) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while providing energy affordability and security.
Of course, journalists would be more likely to ask these questions if the government would raise them. Instead, the Premier and the Energy minister have fallen back on the argument that investments in green power now will pay off later as fossil fuel prices continue to rise. That may come to pass, but energy policies based on forecast price increases don’t always work out.
Nova Scotia went heavily into coal plants 30 years ago on the firm belief that oil prices would keep rising. Instead, oil prices dropped and stayed low for 20 years, causing all kinds of environmental and political problems for Nova Scotia (not to mention a fleet of carbon-belching coal plants). Instead of basing their argument solely on something they can’t control (world fossil fuel prices) the NDP would be better off selling green energy on its own merits — lower emissions, local job creation, import substitution and energy security.
In the meantime, Baillie and the Conservative campaign yields a positive benefit by calling attention to the green energy component of NSP’s current rate increase application. Reading through NSP’s application, you get the impression that NSP would love to wrap a cloak of green around as much as possible of the proposed 2012 rate increase, a topic we hope to revisit another day.
Richard Starr has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and policy adviser. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. His book, “Power Failure,” published in May 2011, is available at Formac Publishing.