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The politics of power

Where do independent power projects fit into British Columbia’s plan to become energy self sufficient?



Just how political are power lines in B.C.?

Most people agree that they’re not pretty to look at. But if you want to turn the lights on, those ugly wires are a necessary evil.

The issue that has sparked the public’s concern recently is not the hum of the wires, but the restructuring of B.C. Hydro, the significant role of private power producers on our energy supply and cost, and the impact of Bill 30 on local communities. B.C. Hydro, traditionally a well-run and efficient Crown corporation, is looking much different than it did five years ago and whether these changes will benefit B.C. ratepayers is unclear.

The sword fight between the Black Knight and King Arthur in Monty Python and The Holy Grail is one of comedy’s classic scenes. While the knight loses his arms and legs in the duel, he dismisses the consequences of having a limbless body with cries of “It’s just a flesh wound!” or “’Tis but a scratch!” To some, the dismantling of B.C. Hydro is akin to the knight’s ordeal, though much less humorous and arguably less bloody.

The provincial government states that public ownership of B.C. Hydro will be maintained, but three significant changes to its structure and function have left it a shadow of its former self. And the 2002 Energy Plan prohibits B.C. Hydro from building new power generation facilities of its own, effectively cutting the Crown corporation off at the knees.

In 2003, B.C. Hydro’s administrative functions were outsourced to a Bermuda-based company called Accenture. Prior to 2000, Accenture was the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen, the Big Five accounting firm that was implicated in the Enron scandal. One third of B.C. Hydro’s workforce was cut as a result.

Also in 2003, through Bill 39, B.C. Hydro’s transmission functions were split off into a separate Crown corporation, the British Columbia Transmission Corporation. B.C. Hydro’s website states BCTC’s role “is to ensure open and non-discriminatory access to the B.C. transmission system for all electricity producers.” Joan McIntyre, MLA for West Vancouver-Garibaldi, says the move was simply to allow private power producers to have equal access to the transmission system. “It was thought that Hydro would have an edge if it controlled access to the grid,” McIntyre said.

But according to Marjorie Griffin Cohen, SFU political science professor and former B.C. Hydro board member, that statement alone is problematic.

“The fact that private developers will have access to our grid means that power is being privatized,” said Cohen. “It is a push from the private sector and the government is accommodating that.”

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