BC VIEWS: Playing BC Hydro monopoly

The crown jewel of B.C. utilities is such a money machine that it can allow extravagant practices and still deliver some of the cheapest, cleanest, most stable energy in North America.

BC Hydro projects like the seismic upgrading of the Ruskin Dam in the Fraser Valley will no longer be completely designed by in-house engineers.

BC Hydro projects like the seismic upgrading of the Ruskin Dam in the Fraser Valley will no longer be completely designed by in-house engineers.

VICTORIA – It’s a basic strategy for the board game Monopoly. If you land on one of the utilities, buy it and reap the steady revenues.

Real-world investors follow the same rule. BC Hydro’s debt may be enormous, but it’s one of the safest investments around.

The crown jewel of B.C. utilities is such a money machine that it can allow extravagant practices and still deliver some of the cheapest, cleanest, most stable energy in North America.

Some of those extravagances were described in a new report on BC Hydro by three senior bureaucrats. Headline items included a 41-per-cent increase in staff in just four years, lavish management bonuses and union overtime pay, and a communications department almost as big as the B.C. government’s own.

You won’t find this kind of luxury in private companies that have to compete in today’s ruthless marketplace. And you won’t learn much about it from listening to B.C.’s political debate, dominated as usual by the NDP’s union-approved talking points. According to those, the only serious problem here is the intrusion of private power producers onto the turf of this government monopoly cash cow.

BC Hydro is only now getting a taste of the business discipline that has been applied to other areas of the provincial government. A case in point is the utility’s 650 staff engineers, part of what the reviewers termed a “gold standard” corporate culture.

Why does BC Hydro have six times as many engineers as the Transportation Ministry, which manages about the same amount of complex construction?

According to Energy Minister Rich Coleman, the Transportation Ministry used to work the same way. Staff engineers would design a new bridge down to the specifications of the last bolt that holds the handrail. Then this design would be put out to tender, with the winning bidder micromanaged at every step.

The remaining Transportation Ministry engineers now speak wistfully of this bygone golden age. Today they are expected to set cost and performance specifications and let the private sector design and build the bridge to meet those targets. Innovations are thus encouraged, not prevented, and their former colleagues do just fine in the private sector.

A brisk pruning – the report recommends reducing total staff from 6,000 to 4,800 – gives Premier Christy Clark what she asked for. An expected 32-per-cent rate increase over three years will be limited to only 16 per cent. And it leaves BC Hydro’s huge capital works program more or less alone: rebuilding old dams, preparing for Site C and expanding both the grid and generation capacity.

The review team also leaves the smart meter program alone, finding more evidence it will pay off in savings.

The reviewers found that BC Hydro’s overtime costs are higher than other electrical utilities, and 84 per cent of that is paid to unionized electricians. The top five overtime earners doubled their base salary with overtime pay between $113,000 and $130,000 last year alone.

With a smart grid, at least they won’t be collecting so much overtime to drive around searching for downed wires.

And I suppose it would be nice to have all overtime paid at double-time, and 17 to 20 “flex days” that can be taken off or traded for cash. But other public sector workers don’t get that.

The government milks this cow too. It overcharges BC Hydro for water use, for one thing.

What this overhaul may also lead to is an end to former premier Gordon Campbell’s aggressive climate strategy. That’s a complicated issue that I’ll tackle in a subsequent column.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

Just Posted

Gwen Spencer Hethey with her uncle and mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
‘She was a killer’: The Victoria woman who pioneered female sharpshooting

Gwen Spencer Hethey made military men ‘look like turkeys’ says her son

Anita Troop officially turns 100 on Sunday and cards are pouring in from around the world. (Courtesy Marina Miller)
Cards roll in from around the world for West Shore 100 year old

About 100 cards have come for the woman who turns 100 on Sunday

A cardboard man bearing Queen Elizabeth II’s royal cipher has been placed in a window at the Royal Theatre for at least several days. (Evert Lindquist/News Staff)
Mysterious cardboard figure appears in Victoria’s Royal Theatre window

The identity of the figure, which was moved there amid cleaning, remains unknown

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Jesse Roper tackles weeds in his garden to kick off the 2021 season of What’s In My Garden Man? (YouTube/Whats In My Garden)
VIDEO: Metchosin singer-songwriter Jesse Roper invites gardeners into his plot

What’s In My Garden, Man? kicks off with the poop on compost

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

Freighters have becomd abundant in the Trincomali Channel on the east side of Thetis Island.
Nanaimo ponders taking on waste from nearby anchored freighters

Vancouver-based Tymac petitioning the Regional District of Nanaimo to accept waste at its landfill

(Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Trutch Avenue in Chilliwack to be renamed to remove racist taint

New name to have Indigenous significance as Chilliwack takes new step toward reconciliation

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

Most Read