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Russell Wangersky: Power trip?

Hydro Place in St. John’s, headquarters of Nalcor Energy and subsidiary Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro HQ. — Telegram file photo

You can accuse Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro of a lot of things, but surely you can’t accuse them of being politically savvy.

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

Last week, the utility filed a response to two Labrador groups that are questioning the need for a new, $20-million power line to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

The problem, as the groups describe it, is that the power line is being built to supply power to data centres in Labrador, and for the proposed 2020 conversion of the Goose Bay base to electric boilers, might not even be necessary.

The two groups — the Iron Ore Company of Canada and a consortium of the towns in the Labrador Interconnected electrical system — say Hydro hasn’t done its homework, and hasn’t proven that the investment is required. The case they’ve made is that the base boiler conversion project is only in the planning stages, and while the data centres use plenty of power, they are hardly guaranteed to stay: the equipment is mobile, and one of the major things that makes a location attractive is low power rates — if those rates change, and Labrador rates are forecast to rise, data centres have been known to simply pull the plug and move to greener pastures.

Both groups want to intervene during the Public Utilities Board review of the project to establish if Hydro’s case is a valid one. But Hydro doesn’t want them at the table.

The power line could even affect the viability of a major player: IOC, as a major power user, estimates financing and paying for the line will cost it an additional $900,000 a year for the next 40 years.

Both groups want to intervene during the Public Utilities Board review of the project to establish if Hydro’s case is a valid one.

But Hydro doesn’t want them at the table.

To be blunt, this issue is the construction of a power line in Labrador, for Labradorians, using Labrador power, and that will be paid for completely by Labrador residents and companies. But those same Labradorians aren’t welcome at the table where the decision will be made.

Hydro’s complaint?

That the intervention doesn’t fit the existing schedule.

They put it like this: “To grant these parties intervenor status now would render meaningless the schedule set by the Board for dealing with this matter. A party that has standing before the Board has the right to know, with certainty, the issues that it will be required to address as part of a proceeding and the timeframe in which that process will occur. This is a basic element of procedural fairness … failing which, Hydro submits, those proceedings could not be conducted in any organized or efficient manner.”

Hydro describes the request for a presence at the table as an “interruption”: “Hydro was preparing a final reply regarding the revised information filed summarizing and explaining these critical projects, the date for which filing the reply was interrupted by these requests for intervenor status.”

A letter from the Labrador Interconnected Group’s lawyers puts their answer to that snub pretty bluntly: “The Labrador Interconnected Group and IOC are the only Labrador-based ratepayers who have applied for intervention in this proceeding. Unless the Board accepts the Labrador Interconnected Group and IOC as interveners, it will be forced to make a decision with significant impacts that fall almost exclusively on Labrador customers but with no input from Labrador interveners.”

The group points out that they’re not filing new evidence, they just want to be heard on one crucial, central point. As they put it, “whether there is sufficient information on the record for the Board to make a decision to approve the project.”

It’s surprising that Newfoundland Hydro hasn’t realized that, with upcoming power increases and the not-too-distant Muskrat surprise, they’re not the most popular kid at the prom.

Kicking sand in the faces of Labradorians who have legitimate questions (the equivalent of “Let them eat the price of new power lines”) is probably not the best response.

Russell Wangersky can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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