Focus on power rates slows Nova Scotia’s weaning off coal:environmentalist

HALIFAX – A new 25-year government electricity plan lacks the ambition that has made Nova Scotia a national leader in moving from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy over the past seven years, says a Halifax-based environmental group.

Catherine Abreu, energy coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, said the plan released Monday fails to continue a trend that has seen the province set aggressive targets in order to transform its electricity system.

Abreu said she believes concerns over electricity rates are largely responsible for what she says is the plan’s more cautious approach.

Nova Scotia still gets the majority of its electricity from coal-fired generating plants, and the plan says coal will likely play a role in the province’s electricity system until at least 2042.

“There’s no date for the absolute phase-out of coal,” said Abreu.

She said that’s because there are significant up-front costs to switching to renewables that have only recently started to show up in electrical rates.

“I think that the surfacing of those costs of transition has made policy makers a little skittish about continuing forward with that transition really ambitiously,” Abreu said.

She said it’s a particular problem for the current Liberal government that ran on a platform that promised to rein in escalating power rates.

Abreu said momentum has been lost after the province succeeded in reducing its dependence on coal by 25 per cent, a figure she said put it well ahead of other coal-dependent provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The plan says coal costs have levelled off after a decade during which prices rose as much as 70 per cent. Consequently, it says the province is positioned for a period of price stability in electrical rates.

To that end, the government will require Nova Scotia Power to set its rate for non-fuel costs from 2017 to 2019. The rate will be locked in over that period.

On Tuesday utility officials responded, saying ratepayers should only see modest increases for fuel costs in their electricity bills over the next four years.

Nova Scotia Power CEO Bob Hanf said the company would not seek a general rate increase for non-fuel expenses in 2016.

Hanf also said it’s possible there may be a slight decrease in the rate for fuel costs in 2016, adding the company is also forecasting increases of one per cent to 1.5 per cent a year for the following three years.

“We are committed to our plan,” said Hanf. “It will provide our customers with stable, predictable, affordable power rates.”

But, Abreu believes electricity rates will continue to be an issue in Nova Scotia regardless of what’s done in the short-term.

“It’s about time we start addressing it (rates) in a more strategic and targeted way,” she said.