When a government — any government but particularly one located in Alberta — makes a management or investment decision that doesn’t pan out, business rears up like a knight on a white charger to defend the exclusive right of private enterprise to make these decisions.
When an Alberta municipality makes what looks like a good investment or management decision, business runs to the courts to say it’s not fair that municipalities should offer services that they could provide much more expensively.
When an industry becomes vertically integrated — owns the farms, and factories, the processors, the transportation and the stores — it’s called free enterprise and it’s all for the benefit of the consumer.
When a municipality does the same, it’s called illegal, a playing field that’s not level.
That’s what we got when the Alberta government deregulated its electricity market.
Today, all but one of the province’s power generators — Enmax, owned by the City of Calgary — are privately owned.
Far from increasing competition in the marketplace, Alberta-style deregulation has created an insiders club. Despite whining that population and consumption growth will soon be causing brownouts all over the province, no major generation plants have been proposed for more than a decade. And this with some of the highest consumer electrical costs in Canada.
The distance gap between where most of the power is generated (the northern half of the province) and where the most growth in consumption and export has come (the south), requires that an intrusive high-capacity powerline be forced through private property against landowners’ wishes, and that the consumers pay for the billion-dollar-plus project through a special levy on their power bills.
Alberta’s privately owned coal-fired power plants are a major source of pollution, but only massive tax-paid investment will clean them up.
But when municipally owned Enmax proposed to build a cleaner, state-of-the-art gas-fired plant near Calgary, thereby offering a solution to all these problems at once — and for a lower cost to the consumer — the white knights of business charged off to the courts.
The 800-megawatt Shepard Energy Centre is proposed to supply up to 10 per cent of all provincial consumption, or half the consumption of Calgary. That shows you how large that city’s presence is in the Alberta power market.
But satisfying demand near the region of highest consumption, and avoiding the need for an extremely costly transmission project, will somehow introduce “uncertainty” in the system.
What sort of “uncertainty” are we talking about here? Uncertainty that consumers will continue to be gouged by high power bills?
Several industry experts — including David Gray, former executive director of the province’s Utilities Consumer Advocate — have noted that only Enmax offers a long-term power contract that a sane consumer would consider signing.
Adding another 10 per cent to the province’s power capacity would improve certainty that sky-high peak load power rates would drop like a stone, and we wouldn’t have to worry about long-term contracts at insane rates.
Does the City of Calgary give Enmax special consideration on water rates or on business taxes?
Do oil companies that own wells, refineries, pipelines and service stations do the same for themselves — without passing the savings on to you at the pumps?
The cynicism of the private sector toward public service is one of the hallmarks of the Alberta business and political culture.
They want fairness for everyone but ordinary consumers.
It’s one of the reasons Albertans hate the very idea of power deregulation.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.