Provincial political leaders are mired in the past when it comes to the debate over Manitoba Hydro – and it could end up costing Manitobans a fortune, according to an Ontario energy expert.
Over the past few days, the leaders of Manitoba's three major parties have traded barbs on the issue of public ownership of Manitoba Hydro. All three say they're committed to public ownership of the utility.
It's a debate that misses the point, says Tom Adams, executive director of the environmental lobby group Energy Probe.
"I think they're totally missing the point," Adams told CBC. The province is missing "gigantic" economic and environmental opportunities by not focusing on energy conservation, he said.
"Manitoba Hydro's got these little piddly conservation programs where they . . . run ads in the newspaper imploring people to turn off the lights when they leave the room. Meanwhile, they're continuing to price electricity as if there's no point in turning off the lights when you leave the room," he said.
If Manitobans paid more for electricity, he says, they'd use less – and much more would be left over to sell to Ontario and other power-hungry jurisdictions.
"The value of electricity that's squandered in the baseboard heaters and electric water heaters and inefficient industrial processes around Manitoba is truly enormous," he said.
"The cheapest power that Manitoba has for sale is not from very costly new mega-projects in the remote north, which both political parties are campaigning for. Rather, it's from electricity that might be conserved by consumers, resulting in surplus power in Manitoba that's available for sale to neighbours."
'Shouldn't be ideological'
University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas agrees that the Hydro debate has become needlessly focused on the issue of privatization, so there's been no discussion about changes that might actually improve the Crown utility.
"Somebody should be thinking about that, quite frankly," he said. "It's a question that shouldn't be ideological. It should be, 'What would work best for Manitobans?'
"Are there ways in which we could follow other provinces, who have broken off parts of their hydro enterprises and [have] them operating like a private firm, competing with public and private mixture in the marketplace – say, residential hydro services, for example," said Thomas, who previously chaired the board of MTS, before it was privatized under Gary Filmon's Conservative government in 1996.
The difference between continuing to discuss the past and looking to the future, Adams suggested, is this: with proper management of Manitoba Hydro, Manitoba could be a "have" province, meaning it would no longer receive equalization payments from the federal government.