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Russell Wangersky: If you build it, customers might not exist

There were hints. Plenty of them.

Russell Wangersky

The clocks were flashing, there were tire tracks — large-wheeled truck tracks — in the driveway, crumpling one corner of the recently shovelled snowbank. On the deck, big bootprints with a clear deep tread, heading back to where the service line from Newfoundland Power enters plastic conduit on the way to the electric meter.

The giveaway? The meter, chewing its way through the kilowatt hours, was now a row of pristine zeroes.

A reset for sure. (In fact, a brand new meter. The power company sent us a letter several months ago warning us they’d eventually be coming by.)

Delightfully digital, and in all likelihood, able to do more than just measure the power coming into the house.

Technology marches on.

Especially in the electricity business.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the impacts of home-owned solar panels on the U.S. electricity marketplace. I might not have been clear enough: some people thought I was talking about solar panels offsetting power consumption in this province. What I really meant to raise was a different issue, and that’s what happens to the much-vaunted U.S. markets for expensive long-distance hydropower like Muskrat Falls in a changing market.

And the market is changing rapidly.

On the last day of March, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas — yes, the great state of Texas, petroleum powerhouse — announced that, at 9 p.m., they’d reached a wind generation record, pumping out 16,151 megawatts of electricity. That was equal to 40 per cent of the state’s total system load at that point in the day.

Now, critics point out that wind power doesn’t offer up those numbers every day — but renewables are getting cheaper (in some uses, on par with traditional energy sources) and that competiveness is growing, even if clean-air subsidies decline. Right now, the U.S. Department of Energy is forecasting that, by 2050, wind could supply 35 per cent of power, making it the single-largest source. That is only 33 years from now.

But then there’s solar power. (And I stress, not here just right now, but in the markets we were hoping to reach to actually bring new capital into this province, instead of just spinning dollars around inside the existing economy. Nothing is funnier than being told that Muskrat Falls will turn a profit for us, when its central source of money is, well, only our own wallets.)

In July 2015, a utility-grade solar installation called Playa Solar 2 signed a power purchase agreement with NV Energy to supply 100 megawatts at the astoundingly low rate of US3.87 cents per kilowatt hour. That was a drop of almost US10 cents a kilowatt hour from the US13.77 cents an hour NV Energy had been paying for solar power in 2014.

The power we’re expecting to eventually get from Muskrat Falls is going to come in at well over 20 cents (Canadian) a kilowatt hour, and while there’s always been an argument that anything we sell south of the border will bring in “gravy,” it’s hard to see how we could compete, when you add in transmission costs, with such low prices. Ask yourself how anything that involves big electricity can remain competitive here, and you’ll see part of the gloom cloud.

But that’s only half the problem.

The one thing everyone in the electric utility business agrees on is that the business is on the verge of massive change. Renewable power in the States is reducing the amount of power needed from some older plants that use coal and even some natural gas operations, and those reductions are actually making them uneconomic.

The biggest issue? Not only is the growth in renewables eating up market share, but the question of what happens when — not if, when — large-scale battery banking to stabilize renewable power gets big enough to push traditional long-distance suppliers out of the market. That same type of storage will let consumers move their grid consumption to off-peak hours, and store any power they can generate themselves, from rooftop solar arrays and on down. U.S. utilities are already dealing with load deflection and load growth stagnation.

There are hints that massive change is coming.

I got a new meter. U.S. utilities are looking at entirely new business models.


Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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