Cash and con­se­quences

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

I’m not an ex­pert in elec­tri­cal pol­icy. There are plenty of those, both pro­fes­sional and hob­by­ist, and no doubt, they’ll write.

But some­times, I think I can see an op­por­tu­nity.

Re­cently, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment an­nounced a phase-out of elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tion from coal in this coun­try by 2030.

It’s also on the record as plan­ning a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of “green in­fra­struc­ture,” some­thing that will see bil­lions spent. What will it be spent on? Well, one of the things be­ing pro­posed is fund­ing for im­prove­ments to the na­tion’s elec­tri­cal grids.

Fed­eral En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Cather­ine McKenna said as much in her news re­lease about coal: “The Gov­ern­ment of Canada will sup­port this tran­si­tion by us­ing the Canada In­fra­struc­ture Bank to fi­nance projects such as com­mer­cially vi­able clean en­ergy and mod- ern elec­tric­ity sys­tems be­tween prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries.”

Parts of the coun­try have power – other parts of the coun­try need power. Still other parts of the coun­try ex­port power south to the United States. By and large, util­i­ties with power – like Man­i­toba Hy­dro and Hy­dro-Québec – are bet­ter equipped to ship their power to the U.S. than east or west to Cana­dian mar­kets.

But if the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is will­ing to put bil­lions in the pot, why not take it one step fur­ther?

Why not set up a na­tional regime to man­age the interprovincial and in­ter­na­tional sale of elec­tric­ity?

And I know, di­vi­sion of pow­ers, fed­eral-pro­vin­cial rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion and blah, blah, blah. Prov­inces with big power sup­plies will cry that they have a right to pick their cus­tomers and make the most dol­lars pos­si­ble from their sys­tems.

But I’m talk­ing car­rot, not stick.

If a prov­ince or its util­ity is per­fectly will­ing to take fed­eral fund­ing for an elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture project, why shouldn’t the fed­eral gov­ern­ment at­tach some strings? For ex­am­ple, that the project should be good for the coun­try as a whole.

The na­tional en­ergy panel would be a sort­ing-house for elec­tri­cal power – match­ing who has it with who needs it, with an aim to re­move as many en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing power sources from the grid as pos­si­ble.

In­di­vid­ual prov­inces could still make their own de­ci­sions about how they wanted to sup­ply their own grids. Prov­inces could have Crown cor­po­ra­tions for power dis­tri­bu­tion, or make the de­ci­sion to put that in pri­vate hands.

And if a prov­ince wants to opt out of play­ing a part in a na­tional power grid, they can – but they have to forego green in­fra­struc­ture fund­ing, and be aware that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment might build na­tional-in­ter­est power cor­ri­dors through their prov­inces with that green fund­ing.

Some peo­ple are bound to say that all I’m sug­gest­ing is a new level of bu­reau­cracy, that I’m rein­vent­ing the wheel – that there’s al­ready a sys­tem that power-ex­port­ing elec­tri­cal util­i­ties have to use: the open-ac­cess transmission tar­iff (OATT).

OATT is a fine thing, if every­one were play­ing fair. The prob­lem is that while in­di­vid­ual util­i­ties are sup­posed to make space rea­son­ably fi­nan­cially avail­able on their grids for power to pass through their ju­ris­dic­tions, they in­evitably put their own com­mer­cial in­ter­ests, and their own power, first.

A na­tional grid would serve a na­tional in­ter­est. And that’s ex­actly what na­tional gov­ern­ments are sup­posed to do.

If the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is go­ing to put bil­lions into elec­tri­cal grids, in­clud­ing in­ter­ties be­tween pro­vin­cial util­i­ties, the coun­try as a whole should also get some­thing in re­turn, other than short-term jobs, for all that in­vest­ment.

If the feds are pay­ing the piper, why let in­di­vid­ual prov­inces call the tune?

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