Energy infrastructure burnt out

So, as you’re probably aware if you follow the latest in energy information news, an official for Alberta’s Utilities Consumer Advocate recently quit. Now, having shed the constraints of having pure evil muzzling him, he can take it upon himself to warn the public directly that our stay-the-course march towards fully deregulated power will “crush” them. Despite past promises of low prices, Alberta has proven to have a power market almost designed to fail.

Decades of infrastructure neglect makes it excruciating for new competition to move in. Just as we don’t expect to find a Walmart in a deserted plain, a power plant won’t build where the wires don’t run. Now in a frantic rush to catch up, we’re told to prepare to be hit by a sudden absurdly expensive transmission expansion. But even if our decrepit system is spiffed up with something that is bigger or better, utilities are still scared shitless to build here.

Our ultrasensitive boom-and-bust economy may be fantastic for investors who can cash out anytime, but it’s not hot for someone backing a billion-dollar plant over 30 years. The fact of the matter is, no one knows whether the next oilsands project will flood the market with a bevy of impossibly cheap electricity made from waste energy, or drain our grid to near-emptiness, pushing up power prices. As a result, having no competition has left us simultaneously under the threat of blackouts and paying some of the highest power bills the country has ever seen. Deregulating ultimately meant we’ve lost control over when power plants are built, even when they’re desperately needed.

We were supposed to be able to shop around for the better prices, but energy retailers are just as petrified of our fragile power grid. We now have a choice of a handful of sleaze-bag militias who can only survive by going door-to-door hustling folks with outrageous energy contracts. They don’t know if volatile market prices are going to be low next week, or whether they have to pay for imported power just to fight off the dreaded threat of a blackout.

So they take the path of least resistance for them; they sign you up to five years of monstrous calculus-textbook-like prices to ensure they can cover their own bills. Even here in these deep city lights, our Edmonton-based utilities won’t save us, as EPCOR intelligently refuses to play the demented game of selling deregulated power.

It’s not that having fluctuating power prices is a sin, but the energy barons could at least go out of their way a smidge to make it useful to us. When power demand is high during the day, new plants go all out and dirty old plants fire up, sending costs soaring. Earlier or later in the day, the system eases up and runs more efficiently as power demand and prices plummet. “Smart Meters” currently used in Ontario and California would let us slash our bills by doing the dishes at 8 p.m. rather than 6 p.m. Klein and Stelmach’s developmentally delayed lovechild of a system struggles to tell time, charging us the same price day or night.

Sure, we could tough out the occasional blackout, and generously spread our wealth by buying more power from British Columbia. We could man up to door-to-door utility con-men and agree to ludicrous contracts, knowing their busywork feeds their family, at least. We could even wash our delicates late at night, burning the midnight oil, all to let the grid run more fuel efficiently, and marginally lowering society’s overall power costs. And all of this happening, unfortunately, without any real personal financial benefit. But if this is the best that the PCs can offer us with deregulation, how are we better off than with the socialist systems of yesteryear?

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