Ontario’s IESO: electricity customers should be concerned

The province’s power agency has been found to use incorrect accounting methods and actively obstruct oversight… that’s a worry, considering their other goals

March 26, 2018

The Independent Electricity System Operator or IESO, which is responsible for managing Ontario’s electricity system, has again been called out on its abilities. Unlike prior occasions, this time the criticism is related to the manner in which the IESO engages in “irregular and improper accounting” discovered in a special audit and reported by the Ontario Auditor General.

From the report by the Globe and Mail: “Bonnie Lysyk, the Auditor-General, informed the province’s public accounts committee last week of problems uncovered during the audit, which began late last year and is now nearly complete. Her concerns included incorrect accounting, deceptive and obstructive behaviour by the IESO’s board and management, and poor financial controls.”

The dispute is related to the Fair Hydro Plan and the accounting treatment that surrounds it. Ms. Lysyk noted the accounting structure was designed to avoid including the costs on the province’s books thereby allowing the government to “falsely claim” it had a balanced budget. The claim was disputed by the Minister of Energy who said the practices are not new and are used in other jurisdictions and “endorsed” by major auditing firms.

The cost of the Fair Hydro Plan just to the end of February is in excess of $1.6 billion and is carried on the books of an OPG “trust” subsidiary — that means the debt incurred will not show on the Province’s books as debt.

Recovery of the monies will, however, become a future burden for Ontario’s electricity ratepayers, who will have to ante up the funds to repay it and the interest it accumulates. The Financial Accountability Office suggests it would be a minimum of $40 billion and perhaps as much as $90 billion depending on if the province manages to balance its budget.

Ms. Lysyk noted, according to the Globe story, “When a board or management in any other province recognizes that an AG’s office has issues with their accounting, they would have handled it differently,” the committee was also told, “They basically treated, I think, my audit team like we were subservient to KPMG. In terms of the law in Ontario, that would be the reverse.”

The AG ordered the IESO special audit when IESO’s auditors would not respond to queries about potential accounting changes and, when their financial statements were published, they used some radically different accounting practices. Those practices were used immediately for the Fair Hydro Plan.  IESO’S Chief Financial Officer, Kimberly Marshall did not consult or notify the AG prior to adopting those practices!  As a result, and because of the refusal by management and the board to sign key documents, the AG’s office was unable to provide an audit opinion.

Many followers of the electricity sector have expressed issues with IESO’s inability to provide correct or timely information related to the generation and consumption of electricity so it should come as no surprise the Auditor General is faced with the same dilemma on financial accounting issues.

IESO also has responsibility for managing data required to pay generators for their power and using data from smart meters.

It should be disconcerting to all ratepayers, big and small, to realize IESO are also spending hundreds of million to bring us a smart grid.   A concern is that IESO may be working with MaRS Data Catalyst (liberally supported by the current government) who note, “We are working with industry, regulators, consumers and government to get that data into the hands of innovators in a secure, private and usable way to drive energy conservation and spur economic growth.

All ratepayers should be concerned as IESO may once again decide to use  different standards when it comes to protecting ratepayers’ privacy, as they have done with IESO’s financial information.

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Hydro One gives the finger to Ontario Auditor General

Hydro One execs implemented only 17% of the Auditor General’s recommendations. She noticed…

The Ontario Auditor General released the 2017 Annual Report and included were the “Follow-up Reports on 2015 Annual Report Value-for-Money Audits (Summary)”.  Two of those (1.06 and 3.04) related to Hydro One audits with both titled “Management of Electricity Transmission and Distribution Assets”.

The two reports note the “Building Ontario Up Act, 2015 (ACT)”* removed the AG’s ability to conduct “value-for-money audits”.  The Act partially privatized Hydro One apparently to allow funds raised from the sale to be spent on “infrastructure”; however, several reports by economists and the AG’s office have either implied or suggested it was done in order to allow the Ontario government to claim they balanced the books.

Standing Committee Follow-up

Leaving that aside, it is worth noting the Standing Committee’s follow-up report (3.04) indicates they made 10 recommendations to Hydro One, none of which were shown to be implemented by them.   The follow-up report noted “Without receiving further details from Hydro One to verify and support the information in its update, our Office was only able to assess and report on the status of some, but not all, of our recommendations (see Section 1.06) and was not able to assess and report on the status of any of the Committee’s recommendations.” 

The report went on to say: “We conducted assurance work between April 1, 2017 and July 26, 2017. To meet new Canadian auditing standards, we requested Hydro One’s CEO and/or Vice President to sign a management rep­resentation letter, dated September 1, 2017, at the completion of our work. The purpose of the letter was to obtain written representation from Hydro One that it had provided us with a complete update of the status of the recommendations made in the original audit two years ago.

On August 29, 2017, Hydro One responded that it declined to sign this letter or any similar document. Hydro One indicate that since it ceased to be an agency of the Crown fol­lowing passage of the Building Ontario Up Act, 2015, it was not required to participate in this follow-up, and it was not appropriate for it to sign the letter.”

Auditor General Follow-up

The AG’s 2015 Hydro One, “value-for-money report” had 17 Recommendations and 36 specific recommended actions attached to those recommendations. As was the case with the recommendations made by the Standing Committee, Hydro One basically told the AG to get stuffed, although the follow-up report (1.06) did note: “As an act of good faith and courtesy, Hydro One nevertheless sent us a document on April 26, 2017, presenting actions it had taken to respond to our recommenda­tions (following our formal request in late Janu­ary 2017 for it to report back to us). However, as explained in more detail in the following section, it declined to provide us with any more details beside this document.” 

Few recommendations implemented

With the limited information provided and other evidence obtained from the Hydro One documents filed with the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) for several rate increase requests (still under review by the OEB), the AG was able to confirm four out of the 36 recommended actions were fully implemented and two were in process for implementation. They were also able to confirm that four actions “will not be implemented”! As a result, only 17% of the AG’s recommended actions can be classified as accepted and executed by Hydro One.

It appears Hydro One’s executive are treating Bonnie Lysyk, the Ontario Auditor General, in a similar fashion as the previous Minister of Energy, Bob Chiarelli did when he dismissed her “smart meter” report by suggesting she didn’t understand the electricity system. (“The electricity system is very complex, it’s very difficult to understand,” Chiarelli said.)

Coincidentally, one of the issues in the report that elicited the foregoing response from Minister Chiarelli is one the AG raised in respect to Hydro One as “Recommendation # 14” aimed at reducing their lengthy power outages (compared to all other Ontario based local distribution companies [LDC]) which stated: “To lower its repair costs and improve customer service relating to power outages through more accurate and timely dispatches of its repair crews, Hydro One should develop a plan and timetable for using its existing smart meter capability to pinpoint the loca­tion of customers with power outages.” That recommendation has now been classified as “No longer Applicable” and no apparent resolution is sought when viewing the notes in Hydro One’s 2016 annual report.

Their response to Recommendation # 14 may have been cloaked in anger as the AG in the 2015 report noted the 1.2 million “smart meters” acquired by Hydro One cost “$660 million yet it did not implement the related software and capabilities to improve its response times to power outages. Hydro One used smart meters predominantly for billing purposes, but not for the purpose of remotely identifying the location of power outages in the distribution system before a customer calls to report the outage. The $660 million expenditure indicates an average cost of $550.00 per “smart meter” and, as many Hydro One ratepayers learned, despite their average cost being twice that of other LDC they often generated billing errors and about 150,000 of them still require manual readings!

Transparency? Doesn’t apply to us

One has to think that because Hydro One’s executives know they are a quasi private/public monopoly, they don’t have to follow the regulations and demonstrate the transparency required of fullly publicly owned entities, and they can simply ignore the AG’s and the Standing Committee’s recommendations and requests. Their monopolized clients are all of the generators, municipal and privately owned LDC and 1.3 million ratepayers who have no choice as to who will enable them to keep their lights on!

Hydro One’s apparent arrogance should be worrying to all ratepayers no matter if they are Hydro One clients or not.

We can only hope the Ontario Energy Board will finally use their regulatory authority when faced with approving any rate increase requests now before them from Hydro One!

Parker Gallant,

December 7, 2017

 

* In the 12 years from 2004 through to 2015 Hydro One paid $3.375 billion in dividends to the Province of Ontario.

Hydro One: the Svengali behind the Fair Hydro Act?

If you are a Hydro One customer, when you get your bill this month it will include a letter addressed “To our valued customers” which describes the wonderful things Hydro One has supposedly done for you.  The letter, signed by CEO Mayo Schmidt, is filled with claims about actions taken and how they were all done to “serve you better.”

One of the paragraphs is particularly noteworthy. It declares:

“For our customers who are struggling with affordability, I want you to know that we are strongly advocating on your behalf. Earlier this year we urged government to make affordability a priority and we made several suggestions that resulted in the creation of the Fair Hydro Plan. The majority of our customers consuming 750 kWh a month have started to see an average reduction of 31 per cent on their monthly bill. For many of our customer, this represents a savings of $600 a year.”

So, the take-away from those words of sympathy from CEO Schmidt ($4.4 million* in compensation in 2016) suggests it was he — not Premier Wynne or Energy Minister Thibeault — who conceived the “kick the can down the road” concept that became the Fair Hydro Act!

Look back to a recent comment from Minister Thibeault in a CBC article, he said this about the Plan:  “ ‘This is like remortgaging our house,’ Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault told reporters Monday at Queen’s Park. “I’ve always said that the Fair Hydro Plan was a fair plan; it was the best plan we could come up with when we were talking with energy experts, accounting experts, the legal experts.”

When the Fair Hydro Plan was launched back on March 2, 2017 Premier Wynne said: “I have heard from people around the province who are worried about the price they are asked to pay for electricity and the impact it has on their household budget. Electricity is a necessity. By fixing problems in the system, we will be able to provide every residential customer in Ontario with an average 25 per cent off their bills now and make rates fairer in the future.”

So the question is, does the “we” include Hydro One’s CEO Schmidt, and is he classified as one of the “energy experts” Minister Thibeault claimed they talked with?  If so, I hope Schmidt told him about the rate increases Hydro One has applied for that will increase average customer’s bills by $141 a year in 2022 (based on current Hydro One rate applications under review by the OEB).

Those rate increases are needed by Hydro One to help pay for their upcoming purchase of Avista Corp. as it will represent a revenue gain to them of close to $500 million annually.

The LDC benefiting the most from the Fair Hydro Plan was Hydro One which still has the second highest distribution rates. Before privatization, they had the highest ratepayer arrears (past due accounts), the bulk of ratepayers accessing the Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP) and the highest level of bad debts.  A part of the rate increase they currently seek would allow them to install “pre-paid smart meters” meaning if a ratepayer couldn’t afford top up their account they would be automatically disconnected.

On October 17, 2017 ratepayers got further bad news from Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s Auditor General reported due to the way in which the Fair Hydro Plan is being financed, ratepayers will be required to pay an extra $4 billion in interest costs.  That $4 billion increases estimated borrowing costs by 19% to $21 billion to cover the forecast $18.4 billion cost of the Plan. The latter costs represent the bulk of the 25% reduction (16%**), bringing total estimated costs for this portion to $39.4 billion.

The shell game of the Ontario Liberal government in Ontario’s energy portfolio continues, aided and abetted by Hydro One. If Hydro One’s rate applications are approved, their distribution rates will jump bringing more misery to their ratepayers!

 

* The CEO’s compensation is more than the total amount available annually under the LEAP (Low-income Energy Assistance Program) from the 73 local distribution companies in the province.

** The other 9% comes from removing the provincial portion of the HST (8%) and putting the OESP and RRRP (1%) as a taxpayer responsibility.