Hydro One: can it deliver on its dividend promise?

The headline on the Hydro One February 10 press release was:  “Hydro One Reports Positive Fourth Quarter Revenue and Operating Cost Trends.” Annual “revenues, net of purchased power” came in at $3,125 million, an increase of $37 million (.4%) over 2015, while Net Income rose from $714 million to $746 million, and “adjusted” earnings per share increased to $1.21/share up from $1.16/share.

If you believe the reporting by Hydro One, you are led to believe a small increase in revenue translated to an almost identical increase in after-tax income.

A closer look is necessary to determine how that happened. As it turns out, transmission revenue was up $48 million and distribution revenue was down $11 million, accounting for the revenue increase. Regulatory assets1. climbed $130 million while operations, maintenance and administration (OMA) apparently fell by $66 million. It is not clear how many millions of OMA expenses were placed into “regulatory assets,” but we should assume a portion of salaries, pensions and benefits were.

As a result, it is impossible to determine whether Hydro One has become more or less efficient, despite this claim in the press release: “Our fourth quarter results demonstrate favourable revenue growth and operating cost control.” We can quickly see “favourable revenue growth” was small potatoes!

There are ways of using information in that press release and annual report to allow for calculations. One area that affects ratepayers is “delivery” costs which is reflected in Hydro One’s “distribution” business line. The annual report indicates the amount of electricity distributed to their 1.3 million residential and business customers fell 8.6% from 28,763 gigawatts (GWh) to 26,289 GWh while distribution revenue fell by $11 million from $1,499 million to $1,488 million. Using simple division one is able to calculate the cost of distribution per megawatt (MWh) increased from $52.05/MWh to $56.60/MWh for an increase of 8.7% or $4.55/MWh.

Everyone pays

Not all of that increase was paid for by Hydro One customers, however, as Hydro One receives revenue from all of Ontario’s ratepayers via the OESP (Ontario Electricity Support Program) which presumably resulted in the year over year drop (at a minimum) of $26 million in Hydro One’s “Allowance for doubtful accounts” from $61 million to $35 million. As well, all Ontario ratepayers pick up the costs of the RRRPP (rural and remote rate protection plan) which was $125.4 million for Hydro One in 2016 and will increase in 2017 to $243.4 million. Adjusting the distribution revenue to reflect contributions to Hydro One by all Ontario ratepayers would reduce their distribution costs to about $54/MWh (5.4 cents/kWh) and bring it almost in line with the claim by Hydro One their distribution/delivery costs represent about 37% of their customer’s electricity bills before HST. If one does the calculation on the OEB’s website however the actual cost of the “delivery” line for a “medium density” Hydro One ratepayer is 43%!

Another asset that showed a big jump on Hydro One’s balance sheet in 2016 was “goodwill” which more than doubled to $327 million, despite their having recovered $60 million in goodwill from the provincial acquisition of Hydro One Brampton before Hydro One went public. This also occurred just before the arranged merger of Hydro One Brampton with PowerStream, Horizon and Enersource. Hydro One has been snapping up some of the small local distribution companies (LDC) such as Norfolk Power, Woodstock Hydro, Haldimand for the past few years and recently applied to the OEB for acquisition of Orillia Power. Hydro One also just completed acquisition of Great Lakes Transmission improving the monopolistic control they hold in this business line to over 98%.   The LDC acquisitions were made well above book value and many of them had their delivery rates frozen for five years.

With Hydro One’s success at being the second most expensive hydro distributor we should expect the ratepayers in the locales of the acquired LDC will see their future delivery rates jump significantly.

On the liability side of Hydro One’s ledger, 2016 saw the acquisition of about $1.7 billion of increased and mainly long-term debt yet, their negative working capital position only improved $716 million. The additional debt raised during the year caused their Debt/Equity ratio to rise from 1.45:1 at the end of 2015 to 1.52:1 at the end of 2016 and brought with it increased interest costs. A rising D:E ratio often precedes a credit rating drop!

Dividend promise impossible, unless …

All this points to a company whose future is dependent on the OEB granting their every wish to increase delivery/distribution rates. If not, the promise to dividend out 70/80% of their annual net profits becomes impossible unless they either: forgo proper maintenance of the infrastructure, or reduce OMA costs via either staff reductions or salary cuts, or sell off assets!

Dividends paid in 2016 on the 5,623,000 common shares were $577 million representing 80% of net income attributable to common shares with just over $400 million going to the provincial treasury leaving about $150 million2. in retained earnings for future investments in infrastructure repairs and refurbishment and the building and/or improvement to the transmission grid(s) and LDC infrastructure.

Something’s got to give, or future increases to Hydro One’s ratepayers will be even worse than the past!

 

  1. Regulatory assets “represent certain amounts receivable from future customers and costs that have been deferred for accounting purposes because it is probable that they will be recovered in future rates.”
  2. Capital spending in 2016 was reported as $1.6 billion.  
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1 thought on “Hydro One: can it deliver on its dividend promise?”

  1. Received this comment directly by e-mail but I felt it was worth sharing:
    “Comment: read your piece on Hydro One revenue-(I’m sure they are pleased with themselves )–power supply is a monopoly–it is a utility–a basic commodity like water and highways,sewage—why are they not operating at break even ? Why are they not striving for low cost reliable ? Where do politicians think the limit is for the carrying capacity of taxpayers and customers?–we are being ground into dust between the mill stones of taxes,fees,monopoly service providers,zero interest on savings,under reported inflation on prices for basics,(loss of purchasing power as money loses its value ) high cost of public sector employees and their pensions and benefits,excessive migrant intake that loads health services and other costs etc.Will this trajectory continue to collapse ? If it was up to me I would nationalize Hydro One—states do it all time–and change the mandate to provide low cost reliable energy–and stop pretending to save the planet from global warming–Canada with its vast forest,grasslands etc is a net absorber of CO2–Toronto may be a net producer–the rest of us are not—lots of comments on various web pages but it does nothing to change outcomes ? What are the options ?”

    Like

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