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.

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

North Island Rising: A very powerful voter

There is another non-voter though that I would love to see back in the voting booth.

Town of Port McNeill’s financial statements are in, and the numbers might surprise you

One resident asked why CIBC bank charges (Fiscal Expense) were $15,000 higher than the previous year

OPINION: A Kayaker’s Paradise with no Kayaks

A kayak rental would greatly bolster tourism in Port Alice.

Bradshaw’s Photo Highlight: A bird and some otters

Here’s two pictures I took while out in my skiff just cruising around the inlet enjoying the weather.

B.C. salmon farm inspection deal reached with Indigenous people

Monitoring to determine if any Broughton region farms stay open

VIDEO: Grizzly bears fight along northern B.C. highway in rare footage

Cari McGillivray posted the head-turning video, shot near Stewart, B.C., to social media

Handgun crackdown, health spending and transit plans latest campaign promises

Friday was the end of a busy week on the campaign trail

B.C. woman photographs massive ant swarm on Abbotsford driveway

She asked what the ants were doing? The answer: war

Police arrest B.C. phone scammer linked to illegal call centres in India

Person arrested in Burnaby here on a work visa, says police

Air Canada forced girl, 12, to remove hijab: civil rights group

The San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling for change

Man from Winnipeg who was hiking alone found dead in Banff National Park

RCMP say the man was hiking alone on Mount Temple Thursday

Takaya, B.C.’s intriguing lone wolf, seen eating seal and howling away on Discovery Island

Fun facts about Takaya the wolf, like his a 36-hour tour around Chatham, Discovery Islands

Resident finds loaded shotgun inside a duffle bag in Kelowna alleyway

RCMP seized a loaded 12-gauge shotgun, ammunition, clothing and other items

Graffiti, calls and Snapchat: RCMP probe string of threats targeting Kamloops schools

There have been nine different threats made to four different schools in the city

Most Read