New info: energy poverty still deep in Ontario

It apparently took the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) a long time to put together the report on the low-income energy assistance program (LEAP) as the 2016 report was not posted until January 11, 2018.

(It was late:  OEB reporting regulations state “A distributor shall provide in the form and manner required by the Board, annually, by April 30, the following information related to the provision of LEAP emergency financial assistance in the preceding calendar year.”)

Actually, I looked for the reports for both the LEAP program and the OESP (Ontario Electricity Support Program) back in mid-December 2017, and still have not received a response.  Busy times at the OEB? Or is the release of the OESP report being delayed for some reason?

The LEAP report is just what we have come to expect. The leader by a wide margin in terms of the program, was Hydro One, which represented 52.4% of all recipients, despite only having about 25% of all residential ratepayers as clients. The dollar values from Hydro One also represented 57.4% of total available funds and 60.7% of total grants disbursed.   Hydro One’s budget was only $1,845,000 (41% of the CEO’s annual remuneration), but it had to be supplemented via donations of $2,250,000 from numerous corporate donors and social agencies.

Thirty-nine (39) LDC depleted their funds in 2016 and 12 more had less than the average grant amount available at year-end. Almost half of the LDC had run out of funds by the time summer arrived in June 2016.

Funds disbursed under the LEAP and Winter Warmth programs compared to 2015 increased in 2016 by $1,318,700 to $7,776,600 (up 20%) despite the fact the OESP (Ontario Electricity Support Program) started January 1, 2016 and offered significant relief to hundreds of thousands of low-income Ontarians. The OESP was estimated by the OEB to cost other ratepayers as much as $200 million annually.

It certainly appears “energy poverty” continues to increase in the province despite the recent claim by the Minister of Economic Development and Growth that “Ontario has now created more than 800,000 net new jobs since the depths of the recession.”

The assumption must be, those 800,000 jobs are all at the low end of the pay scale — otherwise there would have been no need to kick $25 billion (plus the interest [$15 billion]on the borrowed funds) of ratepayer bills down the road for future generation to pay.

Parker Gallant

 

 

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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.  

The Premier’s mandate letters: no sign of plans to resolve a crisis

Premier Wynne: just do what I tell you. Not sure it will work, but do it. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Premier Wynne: just do what I tell you. Not sure it will work, but do it. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Part I

September 26, 2016

Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne just issued 35 “mandate letters” to each Cabinet Minister in the government on September 23, 2016. The letters range from three to six pages, and carry platitudes about ministerial accomplishments and directions as to what she expects them to accomplish in the next two years under her premiership. (“Mandate” is defined as an authoritative command.)

One such platitude can be found in her six-page mandate letter to Finance Minister Sousa wherein she notes we (the collective we):  “Worked with the federal government to ensure the Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP) would not be a taxable benefit.”

Any sensible person would say that money given to support low-income households in the payment of their electricity or other bills should not be a “taxable benefit.”   The OESP is levied as a charge to all of the non-qualifying ratepayers of the province via the Global Adjustment (GA) and becomes a cost of the basic commodity–electricity! So in effect, it is a charitable gift from other ratepayers who pay their escalating electricity bills every month.

Perhaps this “charitable donation” should be recognized by your local distribution company (LDC) who should be required to issue a charitable receipt that you can use when filing your tax return. The government should instruct the LDC to identify that on our monthly bills just as they tell us how much we have saved by not paying the debt retirement charge (DRC).

Interestingly, the same mandate letter to Minister Sousa notes another accomplishment: “Ontario will continue to fulfill its commitment to upload social assistance benefit programs, as well as court security and prisoner transportation costs, off the property tax base. This will ensure that municipalities have more property tax dollars to invest in local priorities.”

Electricity customers carrying the load?

That pronouncement should leave you shaking your head. In one paragraph Premier Wynne suggests the OESP isn’t a “social assistance benefit” but did require federal government approval to ensure it would not be a “taxable benefit,” and later the Premier brags about the wonderfulness of uploading social assistance benefit programs like court security and prisoner transportation costs from municipalities.  Is the reason the province could afford to “upload” those social assistance benefits  because the OESP is being paid by Ontario’s ratepayers without notice or consultation?

If the Wynne government is really looking for more money for municipalities, why didn’t the Premier instruct Sousa to tell MPAC to assess industrial wind turbines (IWT) at their real value rather than the $40,000/MW they are capped at now? Now, that would have increased property tax dollars for municipalities.

The fact is, if the costs of the OESP were properly allocated, they would be under the Community and Social Services Ministry, not the Energy Ministry.   As the ongoing news series from Global TV has noted, the number of people living in energy poverty in Ontario is growing at an alarming rate.

Premier Wynne has publicly noted the “crisis” in respect to the rising cost of electricity and the rise of energy poverty households, yet instructions to the Minister of Community & Social Services fail to respond to the crisis. Her mandate directs the Minister to: “Support the transformation of income-based and other benefit programs, with the Minister of Finance, Minister of Government and Consumer Services and human services system partners, focusing on client-focused delivery and information sharing.”

And in the Premier’s mandate letter to the Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy the instructions are:  “Support the transformation of income-based and other benefit programs, with the Minister of Finance, Minister of Government and Consumer Services and human services system partners, focusing on client-focused delivery and information sharing.”

It is very unclear how her mandated transformation designed to focus on “delivery and information sharing” will resolve poverty.

It is clear she depends on Ontario’s electricity ratepayers as the new charitable organization!

Parker Gallant

 

How to reduce Ontario electricity bills with a minimum of pain

Much has been written recently about what’s wrong with Ontario’s electricity sector and the rising costs of a “necessity of life” to most Ontarians.   The pundits have generally failed, however, to offer a solution. The criticisms correctly point out the mistakes that have been made, including the Green Energy Act and the goal to cleanse Ontario of coal power generation. The result has taken a toll on our pocketbooks and Ontario’s attractiveness as a place to invest in. We now see a sizable increase in people living in “energy poverty.”

I will offer the Ontario Liberal government options that could alleviate rising electricity bills, with little impact on the budget deficit. As some of my suggestions/recommendations impact ministries other than Energy, it may be important for the government to review ministerial responsibilities.

  1. Reduce the Water Fuel Tax imposed on OPG’s hydroelectric units. This fuel tax is applied to both hydro generation and to spilled water (i.e., water not run through turbines). Reducing the tax would generate increased earnings by OPG mitigating further applications for increased revenue via Ontario Energy Board application for rate increases and should generate additional PIL (payments in lieu of taxes). It should reflect itself as a “net-zero” cost to the treasury but mitigate rate increases.   I recommend the fuel charge be reduced by 50% or approximately $170 million annually, based on 2015 fuel charges levied on OPG of $345 million. If applied to residential ratepayers their bills should drop about $40 annually for the average ratepayer.
  2. Move the Ontario Electricity Support Program or OESP: this was created to support low income households and commenced January 1, 2016. The estimated cost of the program was in the $200-million range and required both a staffing increase and advertising budget that will partially consume the budget. The program is funded by other ratepayers via the Global Adjustment pot, reflecting in increasing electricity costs. The program rightly belongs with the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services who have existing relationships with funding agencies such as the United Way and could easily accommodate the program as they do for LEAP (low-income energy assistance program). That would help reduce administration costs and place the program where it would be more effective. Cost savings for ratepayers would be $200 million, but would presumably increase the budget of the Ministry of Community and Social Services by only $180 million. Moving this program to where it belongs would drop the average residential bill by approximately $44 annually
  3. As noted in my letter of August 16, 2016 to Energy Minister Glen Thibeault I suggested a tax on wind generation due to two factors: wind turbines frequently provide electricity at times when it’s not needed and developers are paid above market rates and also for curtailment.   Taxing wind is a concept that could generate $150/$200 million annually (based on generation for the first six months of 2016 and a tax levied per megawatt hour [MWh]). The proposed tax could cost the owners of the wind developments $200 million or more, and reduce annual residential bills by $45.
  4. One of the easiest ways to mitigate future rate increases would be to cancel all of the 400 MW of older wind power contracts that have passed their key contract dates. That would save future rate increases over 20 years, from the addition of $3 billion to hydro bills. Future increases would be reduced by $35 annually
  5. Cancel the LRP II (large renewable procurement) immediately: the 600 MW of wind it seeks is not needed and would add annual costs (estimated) of $200 million and almost $4 billion to future electricity bills. The 300 MW of contracts handed out under LRP I should also be canceled and would save ratepayers another $100 million (estimated) per annum and $2 billion over 20 years.   Cancelling the 900 MW would mitigate future rate increases on the average residential bill by about $65 annually.
  6. Cancel 1,300 MW of wind power (600 MW of new + 300 MW from LRP 1 + 400 MW of projects past their key contract dates) would result in less steaming off of power from Bruce Nuclear.  IESO reported this occurred 472 times in 2015 and represented 897 GWh at a cost of about $60 million. Avoiding that would have meant an annual saving per average residential ratepayer of $15.
  7. Cut back surplus power generation: Cancelling the 1,300 MW of wind capacity would considerably slow the generation of “surplus” power meaning less water spillage of hydro (3.4 TWh) by OPG which cost ratepayers about $150 million in 2015, and resulted in an annual cost per average residential ratepayer of about $30.
  8. Should surplus generation flatten or reduce because of the cancellation of the 1,300 MW of wind capacity it would affect the market price (Hourly Ontario Energy Price or HOEP) favourably reducing subsidies. If the HOEP price increased, say, $20/MWh, it would reduce subsidies and generate additional revenue of $450 million (based on 2015 exports) and reduce average residential electricity bills annually by $100.
  9. Cancel spending on conservation: save more than $400 million a year on TV ads and mailers. Most ratepayers know if we conserve more it causes electricity bills to rise as happened with the recent rate increase announced by the OEB in April 2016. A halt in conservation spending would translate to annual savings per ratepayer of almost $90.
  10. Negotiating “Net Zero” wage settlements provided the Power Workers Union and the Society of Energy Professionals at Hydro One and OPG a wage settlement handing them a lump sum payment for the first two years of their contracts and annual awards of Hydro One shares equal to 2.7% of their wages. The annual awards of Hydro One shares alone will extract the value from their sale that should have gone to the province for “infrastructure” spending or deficit reduction. The value of the “Net Zero” contracts was approximately $250 million. The next contract should be “Zero” and would annually save residential ratepayer about $55.

TOTAL potential savings for the “average” Ontario electricity ratepayer? $519 per year

If the Wynne government undertook these actions, immediate ratepayer relief would be approximately $265.00 annually, and mitigate future rate increases by $220.00 annually.   The PST could have been left on ratepayers’ electricity bills reducing the immediate relief to $135.00. The foregoing would have a marginal effect on annual Provincial revenue reducing the borrowing needs from $1.3 billion to less than $300 million to cover the costs of the OESP shift to the Ministry of Community and Social Services and the marginal drop in the water tax payments from OPG.

Why hasn’t the government done these things? Maybe it’s just easier to transfer $1.3 billion in costs to Ontario’s taxpayers. Or maybe promises were made to those who lobbied the Premier and some of her ministers at special access fund-raising events.

Time will tell.

Parker Gallant

September 18, 2016