Nova Scotia Power’s Tufts Cove power plant in Dartmouth. — Photo: Halifax Examiner

The Houston government’s bill aimed at making Nova Scotia Power (NSP) more accountable to ratepayers and establish a program to help low-income ratepayers is poorly drafted and does not have the teeth to deliver on those promises.

That’s the assessment of three speakers who appeared before the Law Amendments Committee Wednesday after the Progressive Conservatives gave notice of the meeting to discuss Bill 147, which includes major amendments to the Public Utilities Act and the Electricity Act made at 8:30pm the previous evening. Short notice to discuss some very big changes. Nova Scotia Power did not make a presentation.

The discussions are taking place against the backdrop of a proposed 10% increase in residential rates over three years and a slew of other changes that could substantially increase profits for the power company’s shareholders.

Nova Scotians already pay some of the highest power bills in North America, and all three political parties have introduced legislation this session advertised as helping ratepayers, although they vary greatly.

The PC government bill proposes to give the government and the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board the authority to introduce performance standards that Nova Scotia Power would have to meet or pay a fine. These include meeting environmental targets and establishing a program to assist low-income families with their power bills. The NDP also introduced a bill that contained similar performance standards, but if the power company fails to meet them, the company’s revenue and profits would suffer.

For 20 years a group called the Affordable Energy Coalition has been fighting to establish a mechanism to provide some kind of relief for poor people forced to choose between heating and eating. In its written brief to the Law Amendments Committee, the group supports Bill 147 while pointing out it has no chance of actually helping poor people, unless it makes an additional change to the same Public Utilities Act.

“We welcome this important initiative and the government’s commitment to strengthening equity and low-income service and energy poverty,” read the brief submitted by Claire McNeil and Brian Gifford on behalf of the Affordable Energy Coalition. “However, we are presenting here today to address a problem with the Public Utilities Act that will undermine and frustrate the government measures to address energy poverty by regulation under this Act.”

The group knows what it is talking about. In 2017 the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruled the Utility and Review Board did not have the authority to establish a program to help low-income ratepayers unless the provincial government changed Section 67 (1) of the Public Utility Act to allow some ratepayers to be treated differently. The PC’s Bill 147 doesn’t address that important issue, but, as the Affordable Energy Coalition and NDP Dartmouth South MLA Claudia Chender pointed out, there is an easy fix.

Chender proposed an amendment to the PC legislation that would include changing Section 67 (1) of the Public Utility Act to remove the legal barrier to setting up a mechanism to help low-income consumers pay higher power bills. A private member’s bill previously introduced by Chender would accomplish the same thing but has little hope of passing.

The majority of PC MLAs on the Committee voted down Chender’s amendment.

Other groups, such as businesses, homeowner, or taxpayers, would presumably have to pick up the cost of the low-income program. The PC bill will be debated one more time in the legislature before it becomes law, but unless there is major pushback from voters over the Easter weekend, it looks like a done deal. Speakers on behalf of the East Coast Environmental Law Association and the Ecology Action Centre praised the intent of the PC Bill on performance standards, but warned the vague language around “environmental performance” and “energy efficiency” regulations should be much more precise if the government expects Nova Scotia Power the make good on reducing carbon emissions by 2030.

“It’s not clear this language will ensure Nova Scotia Power is making good decisions with respect to climate change adaptation and mitigation,” said Tina Northrup, spokesperson for the East Coast Environmental Law Association. As one example, Northrup cited NSP’s intention to convert some coal-fired units to natural gas if a proposed new transmission line to Quebec (Atlantic Loop) doesn’t proceed.

Solar warning

There is one group of ratepayers who stand to benefit from another piece of legislation proposed by the Houston government. Bill 135 amends the Electricity Act to forbid Nova Scotia Power from levying any new charges or fees on homeowners and businesses who generate their own renewable energy (95% of that is solar). To help the solar industry grow faster — it presently accounts for less than 1% of the energy mix — homeowners will be allowed to generate as much power as they want and commercial establishments will see the 100Kw cap lifted.

The energy coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre said these are positive steps in the right direction, however, the legislation misses an opportunity to speed up the transition from fossil fuels. Gurprasad Gurumurthy says the bill should be amended to allow solar customers with large rooftop arrays to sell to NSP any surplus they produce.

“The changes allow customers to bring their bills down to zero,” said Gurumurthy (except for a $10.83 monthly charge). “However, customers who can go bigger are not incentivized to do so. If the intention of the bill is to increase the percentage of solar, Clause 6 should be modified to enable customers to be compensated for any excess generation from non-ratepayer funds.”

Larry Hughes is a professor in electrical engineering at Dalhousie University. He’s done a lot of research over many years on energy policy. Hughes and his wife own a cottage that is off the grid and generates electricity using solar power. Hughes warned legislators the solar legislation needs more work to adequately address a few technical challenges.

Hughes noted that during the summer months when there is plenty of solar power, power companies have to quickly ramp up their system to provide electricity when the sun sets. In California, Hughes say the amount of power required from the grid doubles in just three hours. In Nova Scotia, the largest source of variable source power is the wind. Hughes estimates Nova Scotia Power will need to increase its output by 20% over a three-hour period to meet the evening peak.

Hughes suggested politicians include the following three regulations in the amendment to the Electricity Act:

  • Require solar customers to inform Nova Scotia Power of their connection to the grid. “Without Nova Scotia Power being aware of this, it could put line crews at risk,” Hughes said. “It’s a safety issue.”
  • Require Nova Scotia Power to publicly report statistics showing annual solar production (Hughes says these are hard to get and current production may be as little as 0.4 of 1%).
  • Require NSP to make public any changes to its revenue due to “variable electricity generation” from solar and wind. “Without it, you can’t verify NSP’s claims that other ratepayers are subsidizing customers who generate some of their own renewable energy.”

Hughes suggestions were not adopted and the bill will proceed in its original form to the legislature, where it will probably become law within a week. The haste with which these changes are moving with little public conversation should be noted.


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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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