Hydro rate increases to be cut back

BC Hydro should reduce its proposed rate increases by half and prune back a corporation that has become overstaffed and micromanaged, according to a review panel appointed by the B.C. government.

BC Hydro CEO Dave Cobb says he can meet the government's cost-cutting targets by eliminating 600 jobs.

VICTORIA – BC Hydro should reduce its proposed rate increases by half and prune back a corporation that has become overstaffed and micromanaged, according to a review panel appointed by the B.C. government.

Energy Minister Rich Coleman said Thursday he accepts the recommendations of a report by the three deputy ministers he appointed in April. They include reducing BC Hydro’s rate application to the eight per cent interim increase already being charged this year, followed by rate hikes of 3.9 per cent in each of the next two years.

The B.C. Utilities Commission must approve any rate increases. The rate proposal currently before the commission is for increases of nearly 10 per cent this year, next year and 2013. With an aggressive reconstruction and expansion of the power grid underway, BC Hydro had been planning to raise rates by about 50 per cent in the next five years.

Rolling back the increases requires BC Hydro to cut costs by $800 million over three years. The review panel estimates that would mean a reduction of up to 1,000 of the corporation’s 6,000 employees.

BC Hydro CEO Dave Cobb said the corporation has already identified 250 positions that can be eliminated, and is working on efficiency measures that will cut another 350 jobs. That should be sufficient to meet the government’s target of easing the impact of hydro bills on B.C. ratepayers, Cobb said.

NDP energy critic John Horgan focused on the panel’s recommendation that the government rethink its 2016 deadline for BC Hydro to become self-sufficient in electricity. That target was imposed by former premier Gordon Campbell to spawn a costly private power industry, and it should be scrapped altogether, Horgan said.

The review panel found that BC Hydro’s staff grew by 41 per cent between 2006 and 2010. That was before it reabsorbed BC Transmission Corp., spun off as a separate entity in 2002. BC Hydro currently employs 650 engineers, which the panel noted is six times the number working for the transportation ministry, administering a construction program of about the same size.

Coleman and Cobb stressed that BC Hydro would not compromise safety or reliability to achieve the savings. Deferred projects would be things like building upgrades, while major dam refits and preparation for the Site C dam on the Peace River will continue.

Coleman said the transportation ministry used to engineer each new bridge down to the last bolt before calling for bids to construct it. Now it sets performance and cost benchmarks and lets private sector bidders find the most efficient way to meet them. He said BC Hydro needs to do the same.