Hydro One: the news is bad, bad and even worse

Hydro One’s litany of bad news

Shortly after Hydro One’s CEO Mayo Schmidt announced in July that Hydro One would acquire Avista Corporation of Spokane, Washington, it’s been a litany of bad news for him and the shareholders.

Bad News # 1.

The worst bad news was a recent one by the OEB in respect to the allocation of a large part of Hydro One’s rate increase request, associated with deferred income tax relative to their transmission business.   The note in their recently released 3rd Quarter report states: “On November 9, 2017, the OEB issued a Decision and Order that modified the portion of the tax savings that should be shared with ratepayers. This proposed methodology would result in an impairment of Hydro One Networks’ transmission deferred income tax regulatory asset of up to approximately $515 million. If the OEB were to apply the same methodology for sharing in Hydro One Networks’ 2018-2022 distribution rates, for which a decision is currently outstanding, it would result in an impairment of Hydro One Networks’ distribution deferred income tax regulatory asset of up to approximately $370 million.”

Hydro One was not pleased and as a result are appealing the ruling by the OEB to the Ontario Court of Appeals. They hope the decision will result in a 100% benefit for the shareholders and nothing for the ratepayers instead of the 29% allocated by the OEB.

Bad News # 2. and # 3.

Another bit of recent bad news was related to the ruling of the Alaskan regulators who  rejected the acquisition of Alaska Electric Light and Power Company (an Avista subsidiary) by Hydro One.  Interestingly enough, the rejection came even though Hydro One have guaranteed the regulators (via the Avista Corporation’s application to allow the takeover) a 10-year rate reduction which is estimated to reduce Avista’s revenue by US$31 million.

Bad News # 4.

Almost six months ago, Hydro One submitted a rate application to the OEB that, if fully granted, would increase average residential distribution rates by $141 annually. This was right in the midst of all the chatter about the Fair Hydro Plan the Ontario government was promoting.  When confronted with questions related to that application, the Premier declared to the Elliot Lake Standard: “It’s the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) that sets the rates. The Ontario Energy Board sometimes accepts increases and sometimes they don’t.”  Most ratepayers know that setting rate increases has become the purview of the Minister of Energy and the Premier who decreed rates would be reduced by 25% via the Fair Hydro Act so the claim was disingenuous.  Nevertheless, perhaps the OEB took a signal from the Premier’s message?  What they did was schedule a series of open-house meetings at nine locations in the province.  One should suspect those attending the meetings were not there to support the rate increases!  The OEB is still weighing the Hydro One submission and what they heard at the community events.

Bad News # 5.

Yet another piece of recent bad news came from Spokane, Washington when Avista announced their 3rd Quarter earnings were down 63% from US$12.2million to US$4.5million of the comparable 2016 Quarter. (Could someone please tell me why Hydro One is buying Avista Corp. and paying [US $5.3 million] 45 times current earnings, suggesting there are synergies that will result in savings and benefits to both sets of ratepayers separated by 3,687 km of driving miles?)

Bad News # 6.

Back in August 2016 the City of Orillia agreed to sell Orillia Power Distribution for $26.3 million (30 times 2015 earnings) and Hydro One dutifully submitted the agreement to the OEB for approval. Shortly after Hydro One announced their planned purchase of Avista, the OEB stated “In an order dated July 27, the board said it had determined “that the hearing of this application will be adjourned until the OEB renders its decision on Hydro One’s distribution rate application.”  Energy board staff found that rates proposed for previously acquired utilities in Hydro One’s distribution rate application

“suggest large distribution rate increases for some customers” in future.”  Hydro One resubmitted the application and the OEB’s response was: “On October 24, 2017, the OEB issued a Procedural Order in response to Hydro One’s Motion to Review and Vary, with key dates for filing additional materials on the Motion, hearing date, and filing of reply submissions.”

 Bad News # 7

On November 10, 2017 Hydro One released their 3rd Quarter results: they were disappointing, with distributed power dropping by 395 GWh (gigawatt hours) or 6% compared to the same quarter in 2016. That reflected itself in a revenue drop of 3.7% or $14 million (net of cost of power) despite additional revenue coming from OEB approved rate increases.  The overall drop in consumption in the province also reflected itself in a significant drop in average peak demand (down 9.3%) which would have resulted in a revenue drop if not for the OEB’s approval of transmission rate increases, pushing revenue up by $27 million.

The end result was a $15 million (-6.3%) drop in net income despite the year over year rate increases for both the distribution and transmission businesses. Interestingly Hydro One blamed “milder weather” as the cause of the consumption and peak demand drops whereas Environment Canada reported “From June 20 to July 31, Toronto hit 30 degrees just seven times, compared with 24 days in 2016” but perhaps “milder weather” insofar as Hydro One is concerned references cooler weather or simply reduced consumption due to the cost burden on ratepayers?

 Perhaps the stream of bad news that Hydro One is currently suffering from will allow the company’s executives time to reflect on the decade of bad news Ontario’s ratepayers have experienced as a result of their inability to keep our rates from climbing at a multiple of the cost of living.

Parker Gallant,

November 14, 2017

 

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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.

 

Hydro One claims it is enhancing consumer satisfaction (and pigs are flying)

It’s all good news! Or, is it?

Reading the news releases since Hydro One was privatized by the Wynne government one would think the company is trending up. A rate-paying customer, or even an early investor in Hydro One shares, however, might not agree, especially with some recent claims in their second quarter news release.

Right after Hydro One announced plans to spend $6.7 billion (CAD) to acquire Avista Corporation of Spokane, Washington, credit rating agencies Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s revised their outlook to “negative” from stable, citing concern about cash flow and increased debt.  Fast forward to August 8, 2017 and the second quarter results demonstrated more negative news as earnings dropped $34 million (21.7%) to $123 million or 20 cents per share.  Back on May 4, 2017 Hydro One had increased their dividend payment to 22 cents per share so they paid out $135 million in the Q2, or $12 million more than their after-tax income.

I wonder how long the credit rating agencies will allow that to happen without a downgrade.

It appears that management of Hydro One at least recognized the “outlook” downgrade as, buried in the notes in their Q2, was this :  “The change in the capital structure of Hydro One as a result of the Merger and the Debenture Offering could cause credit rating agencies which rate the outstanding debt obligations of Hydro One and Hydro One Inc. to re-evaluate and potentially downgrade their current credit ratings, which could increase the Company’s borrowing costs.”

The news release also featured this back-pat from president and CEO Mayo Schmidt, despite the bad news of the quarter and the potential of an upcoming credit downgrade: “We continued to deliver on enhancing customer satisfaction and value while implementing operational improvements and efficiency gains across the organization, despite unseasonably mild weather during the second quarter.”

Not too bright a future

So, let me get this straight: a possible credit downgrade, higher borrowing costs, declining income and lower demand — those don’t add up to “enhancing customer satisfaction and value.” And, with nine rate applications to be filed in the next four years, the future doesn’t look great for Hydro One’s customers.

Hydro One’s distribution revenues (net of purchased power) were flat at $349 million compared to the same 2016 Quarter. However, they actually delivered 4.5% (276,000 MWh) fewer MWh. What that means is Hydro One’s distribution rates for their most recent quarter were 4.5% higher than the comparable quarter in order to make up for the lower demand while maintaining revenue levels.

To make matters worse, the takeover of Avista will put Hydro One into the coal business facing a $100 million dollar cost of cleaning up a toxic waste site partially owned by Avista in Montana.

Effective management and efficiency gains, coupled with lower distribution rates should be the focus for Hydro One before they get to claim they are “enhancing customer satisfaction.”  As well, claiming that electricity rates are lower by actually deferring costs for four years via the Fair Hydro Act just proves Hydro One’s existence as a monopoly should be controlled, rather than allowed to spin tall tales.