“Quebec Inc” scoops up Ontario renewable energy projects

Valuable contracts with above-market rates for wind and solar power are attracting investor attention

Perhaps unbeknownst to many, Ontario’s electricity ratepayers are accumulating debt in the electricity file (Fair Hydro Plan or FHP); that debt will reappear in future years to ensure electricity rate increases exceed inflation by a wide margin.

The cause of the FHP debt can be traced to the Green Energy Act (GEA) and the FIT and MicroFIT contracts handed out by the Ontario Liberal Government under Premiers McGuinty and Wynne.  Those lucrative above-market (confirmed by the Auditor General) contracts were granted to mainly foreign-owned companies. The companies rushed to Ontario to take advantage of the above-market rates offered for renewable energy of the wind and solar variety.

Many of those foreign-owned companies are now leaving Ontario, cashing out on the lucrative contracts by selling them to willing buyers. Our provincial neighbour “Quebec Inc.”, with its cheap electricity prices, is rushing in to scoop up many of those contracts along with others like the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). The latter purchased NextEra’s portfolio (Head Office Florida) of 396 MW of wind and solar contracts, paying $1.871 million per MW for a total of $741 million CAD and assuming the debt (US $689 million).

“Quebec Inc’s” acquisitions are more “under the radar” and most costs are unknown, but some of the bigger investment players with Quebec headquarters are very active.

The one recent acquisition from “Quebec Inc.” caught the attention of many in Eastern Ontario was the purchase of a controlling interest in the unbuilt 100-MW Nation Rise wind power project in North Stormont, south of Ottawa. When newly elected Premier Ford’s government announced they were cancelling 758 renewable wind and solar energy projects, most Ontarians thought Nation Rise would be one of: it wasn’t. Somehow the bureaucrats in the former Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change managed to issue the REA (renewable energy approval) just a few days before the election writ was dropped despite wind power and this project in particular being a prominent election issue.

To top things off, the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) were satisfied that EDPR had met their “key development milestones” and issued the NTP (Notice to Proceed) on June 13, 2019, days after the election and weeks before the Ford government announced the new cabinet.

When the approval became public, community group Concerned Citizens of North Stormont, stepped up their fight to stop the power project.

Project developer EDPR then sold off controlling interest in the Nation Rise project along with other existing operating projects. Before that happened however, EDPR submitted an application dated October 11, 2018 to the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) for a electricity generation licence. Question 13 of the application asks the question; “Has the applicant secured financing?”

EDPR ticked the NO box.

The OEB appears to have overlooked the lack of secured financing (based on the application) and granted the licence December 20, 2018 without comment.

EDPR is a subsidiary of EDP a global energy company with its headquarters in Portugal and with significant renewable energy assets in North and South America. With 2,300 industrial wind turbines in the USA, EDP rank third in installations.

EDP has been a takeover target for several years by Three Gorges, a Chinese state-owned company who are already a significant shareholder. Because of the Chinese state ownership the US government expressed concerns with the possible purchase by Three Gorges. The principal concern is the volatility of US electricity grids and security issues surrounding them. Other EU countries with EDP electricity generation assets are also concerned with grid security issues in the event of a takeover by Three Gorges.

In the midst of takeover buzz, EDPR suddenly sold off controlling interest in some of their North American generation assets to a Quebec-based company, Axium Infrastructure Inc. Eight days after the OEB blessed the EDPR licence application for Nation Rise, Axium issued a press release announcing they had closed an agreement to acquire an 80-percent interest in three wind power projects, totaling 499 MW in the U.S. and Canada from EDPR.

Nation Rise was one of those acquired.

A month and a half earlier, Axium was the lead investor in the purchase from U.S.-based Pattern Energy Group of a 90-MW minority interest in the 270 MW K2* wind generation project. The purchase price was CAD $216 million.

Following OEB’s approval of the EDPR Nation Rise generation licence, Axium Infrastructure submitted an application to the OEB dated January 14, 2019 seeking approval of their majority (80 percent) acquisition. The application form asks no questions about financing, nor does it ask questions about bankruptcy or criminal issues for either the company or individual officers, unlike the “generation licence” application format.

The application to the OEB indicated Axium held investments in seven of Ontario’s wind turbine developments and 19 solar projects. It also included the following: “After completion of the Proposed Transaction and the Project, Axium and its affiliates will have a generation capacity of 1,050 MW** on a gross basis and 563 MW on a net basis within the Province of Ontario.”

On February 28, 2019 Axium issued a further press release reporting they acquired a 50-percent interest in a 101-MW solar portfolio in Ontario from Mitsubishi Corporation.

In short, Axium has been very aggressive in acquiring Ontario’s foreign-owned wind and solar projects and Ontario’s regulator, the OEB, have blessed everything Axium has done.

That’s obvious if one reads the short letter dated February 14, 2019 from the OEB notifying  Axium about their Nation Rise acquisition: “the OEB does not intend to issue a notice of review of the proposal.”  Was this due diligence?

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of my look at the “Quebec Inc” acquisition spree, I will attempt to explore who is behind Axium Infrastructure, the interaction with the Ontario Energy Board and how the latter executes its Vision: “The OEB supports and guides the continuing evolution of the Ontario energy sector by promoting outcomes and innovation that deliver value for all Ontario energy consumers.”

PARKER GALLANT

 

*K2 was a Samsung project commissioned in September 2015 so has about 17 years left in its contract and if it operated at 30% of capacity would generate approximately $540 million in gross revenue over the remaining term of its contract for the 90 MW of capacity now owned by the Axium consortium.                                                                                                                                 **That amount of renewable generation would represent approximately 14% of all current operating renewable wind and solar in Ontario.

 

 

 

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The political web of EDPR and the Nation Rise wind power project

 

The power from Nation Rise would be like a fly on an elephant in terms of Ontario demand. Cancelling would save hundreds of millions.

Last week, a news article appeared in the Nation Valley News reporting the local Conservative MPP, Jim McDonell’s response to a question asking on why the government hasn’t cancelled the 100-MW Nation Rise wind power project. Mr. McDonell said, “We’ve always been clear: We would cancel any project we could cancel economically,” and he added “… we just can’t spend a billion dollars to cancel a project and get nothing from it.”

The same day, a press release from the Ford government noted that Premier Doug Ford told people attending the annual Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference, that “We’re lowering electricity costs”

I am at a loss to explain Mr. McDonell’s suggestion that cancellation of the Nation Rise IWT project would cost the same as the McGuinty/Wynne gas plant moves, but that’s what he said. It’s worth a look back at how this power project came into being, as it illustrates the disaster that has been Ontario energy policy for the last 15 years.

The Nation Rise wind project was one of five awarded contracts in March 2016; after that, its history gets really interesting … and very political.

Cost of the project

The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) at that time noted the average price for all the projects proposed was $85.90/MWh (or 8.5 cents per kWh). Over 20 years that would produce revenue of about $450 million, or less if their bid was lower than the average..

If the project were cancelled, no court would award them the full contract amount; it is more likely the government would be on the hook for perhaps 5 to10 % of that amount (on the high side).

There is no doubt that cancelling this project would save Ontario citizens hundreds of millions.

Timing of the approval

According to the Environmental Registry the Nation Rise entry for the Renewable Energy Approval or REA is dated May 7, 2018 and indicates it was loaded to the registry May 4, 2018.  That is just four days before the writ was drawn up by former Premier Kathleen Wynne, formally announcing the upcoming Ontario election.  It was known* the voting date would occur on June 7, yet the REA — a major decision — was given by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC).  At that time, not only were polls forecasting a defeat for the Liberal government, “electricity prices” and hydro bills were a major election issue. The MOECC issued the decision anyway.

Is the power needed?

In 2015 (before the IESO called for more wind power proposals) Ontario had a huge surplus of generation. Our net exports (exports less imports) were 16.8 TWh (terawatt hours) or enough to supply almost 1.9 million average households (over 40% of all Ontario households) with their electricity needs for a full year.  It cost ratepayers an average of 10.14 cents/kWh to generate that power which was sold for an average 2.36 cents/kWh, representing a cost of $1.3 billion to Ontario’s ratepayers.

Due to the highly intermittent nature of output from wind turbines, the IESO’s projections of long-term capacity use only 12% of the nameplate capacity for wind power installations when calculating their contribution to overall capacity. So for Nation Rise, the IESO is projecting that the useable contribution of the project will be 105,120 MWh — just .0765% of the IESO’s forecast power consumption of 137.4 TWh. That is a fly on the flank of an elephant, in my estimation.

Cancellation of Nation Rise would not affect the long-term supply of electricity for the people of Ontario.

Worse, adding more capacity, particularly from an intermittent source, could result in more spilling of hydro, more curtailment of wind power generation, additional nuclear shutdowns or steam-off, all of which would drive Ontario’s electricity bills rates higher.

Property value loss

The property losses in value caused by the presence of 33, 650-foot industrial wind power generators throughout the countryside in the Nation Rise project will be in the tens of millions of dollars according to a study which notes: “Using research completed recently by a land economist with the University of Guelph and published in Land Economics, Wind Concerns calculates that overall, the property loss for houses within 5 km of the 33 planned turbines could be $87.8 million. Using other research that is less conservative, however, the property value loss could be more than $140 million.”

A loss of either magnitude would impact North Stormont’s realty tax base leading to either significant drops in revenue for the township or realty tax increases as a multiple of the COL (cost of living).

And then there’s the water

One condition among many in the REA given to EDP/Nation Rise was related to identifying and mapping all water wells in the project area within a set range of any proposed equipment, meteorological tower or wind turbines. This was due to concerns about construction activities on the local aquifer. While EDP identified 444 wells, the community group says there are more than 800 homes within the immediate project. Water wells in other areas of Ontario and elsewhere have become contaminated allegedly due to drilling and vibrations from wind turbines. There is significant concern about contamination of the wells, and the assessment taking place.

North Stormont is dairy farm country, and each farm operation uses thousands of litres of water every day — what would be the effect on these businesses, and Ontario’s food supply, if suddenly, the water wells were not functioning?

Who is EDP?

EDP (parent of EDPR) is a Portuguese utility company partially owned by two of the Chinese government’s companies; China Three Gorges (23.27%) and CNIC Co., Ltd., (4.98%) and the former has been trying for several years to acquire the balance of the shares. That attempt is speculated to be off; however, a recent NY Times article suggested otherwise, based on discussions with Portugal securities regulator CMVM.

Where is democracy?

North Stormont, where the Nation Rise wind project is planned, declared itself an “unwilling host” in 2015, well before the award of the contract or the issuance of the REA. The people perhaps relied on promises made by former energy minister and Ottawa Liberal MPP, Bob Chiarelli, when in 2013 he declared: “It will be virtually impossible for a wind turbine, for example, or a wind project, to go into a community without some significant level of engagement”. Despite their council passing the unwilling host motion, and also joining the 117 Ontario municipalities demanding a return of local land-use planning for energy projects, the IESO still granted Nation Rise the contract.

There are many questions about this project and many reasons why it simply isn’t needed. Cancelling this contentious project is a perfect way to lower future electricity costs, directly.

PARKER GALLANT

*The Toronto Star reported in an article dated October 19, 2016 the next Ontario election would be on June 7th, 2018