Thomson: A jolt of candour about Alberta’s power system

Something remarkable happened in Alberta politics this week — on Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. to be precise.

A cabinet minister answered a journalist’s question without equivocating or evading or talking vaguely about “tough choices.” The minister even managed to display a sense of humour. That’s headline-worthy news in these pre-budget days of long faces, short explanations and a widening deficit.

The refreshingly blunt politician was Energy Minister Ken Hughes, who on Tuesday released the much-anticipated report from the Retail Market Review Committee that has been navigating the labyrinthine system that is our deregulated electricity market. The expert panel had been asked to put a particular focus on the options Albertans have to purchase power for their homes.

Right now as consumers, we have two options: Sign a fixed-rate, multi-year contract with an electricity provider; or stay without a contract on the floating default rate, officially called the regulated rate option.

The expert committee’s exhaustive 390-page report strongly argues that to foster real competitiveness in the marketplace, the government should finally scrap the old regulated rate option, thus forcing everybody to sign electricity contracts.

Hughes was asked if he, as a homeowner, has signed on to a long-term electricity contract.

“A very interesting question,” he replied, pausing for a moment before offering this confession: “I never, before becoming energy minister, spent the time to try to understand my electricity bill. I find it complicated.”

Hughes admitted he has therefore stayed on the old regulated rate option system. “I don’t have a contract.”

It was a stunning admission. Not only does the energy minister find his electricity bill complicated, he has not signed on to a power contract, something the government was pretty much urging everyone to do when the retail end of the electricity system was deregulated a decade ago.

But Hughes is not alone. It turns out 65 per cent of Albertans have refused to sign a long-term contract and have stuck with the regulated rate option. More >

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