Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady is responding to public concerns being expressed over power rates, and recent power protests, saying the plan is coming for rate mitigation, with further work still required by Nalcor Energy and government staff.
“We’re expecting the reports from both Nalcor (Energy) and this internal panel that we have, committee that we have, we’re expecting those by early fall,” she said in an interview Thursday, referring to ongoing, private work within both the provincial energy corporation and Natural Resources, to better understand possibilities and limitations, and develop options for handling the significant Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project costs.
The energy megaproject is still under construction.
Once the reports are in, Coady said, the Liberal government will need to consider what’s in front of them.
She said information will be put to the Public Utilities Board (PUB) thereafter.
“We would ask the Public Utilities Board for their considerations, their review, their analysis and their (sense of) impacts as we move forward,” she said, while unable to say exactly when the PUB would see the Liberals’ options on rates, or under what circumstances.
It was unclear if the information would be included in a proposal within a standard, general rate review process, or in some kind of general reference to the PUB by the government, where a narrowed list of options on incorporating costs could be challenged, with the regulator making recommendations to the government on how it might best proceed.
“It would likely be a reference or question,” Coady said. “We will talk to the Public Utilities Board. We will find the right mechanism for them to do that.”
She said she is expecting to have “a wide range of possibilities” before her, before going to the PUB for “analysis and review and considerations on that.”
The first step for the Liberals, the minister said, has been making sure Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project costs were first and foremost kept in check, with the project brought closer to commissioning without costs leaping up again.
“I want to assure people we’re going to keep rates as low as possible — as low as possible. That’s the goal here,” she said, adding the time is being taken for due diligence.
Coady said Muskrat Falls project costs are not being factored into rates until 2020 (when power from the Muskrat Falls hydro plant is expected to be flowing).
As The Telegram has reported, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro — the Nalcor Energy subsidiary responsible for the regulated power business — has filed the idea of a new rate rider at ongoing general rate hearings at the PUB. The idea would be to incorporate some Muskrat Falls costs into bills as early as Jan. 1, 2019.
But testimony at the rate hearings has shown Hydro is not aware of any details of a provincial rate mitigation plan, including what the province might pay from Nalcor and/or general revenues, to keep power costs manageable for ratepayers.
More recently in the current hearings, the rider has been referred to by a Hydro staff member as not a “formal proposal.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie has called on the Liberal government to make a special reference to the PUB now on power rates.
The PUB can provide a recommendation on rates, he said, leading to a government decision on at least what can or cannot be handled by ratepayers.
Crosbie said the next steps are what the Liberals don’t want to deal with publicly.
“We have to decide where the balance is going to come from. My position is it can’t come from Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayers. That leaves the federal government with which we have to have an extensive negotiation,” he said.
He was asked how the federal government could possibly negotiate to help keep provincial power rates down in the province, to give something to this province and not another.
He said the federal government “enabled” the Muskrat Falls project through its loan guarantees, and said it now has responsibility to follow through on the outcome.
“We need to talk,” he said, as a statement for the feds.
“You won’t hear Mr. Ball saying that last bit,” he added, referring to Premier Dwight Ball.
The premier has publicly challenged Crosbie for the Progressive Conservative party’s role in sanctioning the Muskrat Falls hydro project in the first place and leading the province at a time of significant increases in the project’s cost.
Meanwhile, another grassroots power rate protest is scheduled for St. John’s Friday.