RATE MITIGATION: DR. FUREY’S FALSE DIAGNOSIS

Guest Post by PlanetNL

PlanetNL39: Dr. Furey’s False
Diagnosis

Premier’s Rate Mitigation Plan is
a Bust

In his old profession, Dr.
Furey could never get away with giving a terminally ill patient a pain killer
and proclaiming to them that they are cured. 
In politics though, he is shamelessly practicing that game to the
fullest.  If you believed his July 28 grandstand
with his pal the Prime Minister was indeed a good and permanent rate mitigation
solution for Muskrat Falls, then you have taken his bait, hook, line, and
sinker. 

There is very little in
the announced Agreement in Principle that permanently decreases the cost of
Muskrat to be borne by ratepayers.  This
post will explain the problems and risks of five of the six measures that were
announced as the rate mitigation solution.  It will also identify additional risks to
demonstrate how impossible the task it is to have ratepayers pay for Muskrat.  But that won’t stop the politicians from
trying to do it anyway.

The July
28 Documents

The key document released
on July 28, the only one that carries real weight, is the Agreement in Principle (AIP)   on how the Government of Canada (GoC) and the Government of Newfoundland and
Labrador (GNL) have restructured the Muskrat Falls project’s debt and
equity.  This agreement has signatures
for both parties and appears as though it will be fully adopted through
Amendments to existing project agreements. 

The take-or-pay nature of
the agreements is not changed by the AIP and there remains tremendous burden
for ratepayers to pay for the project. 
The changes are largely in timing and provides little remedy to the long
term-problems.  Notably absent is any
mention of Emera whose contractual rights to investment return are presumably
left entirely intact as per the original agreements.

There were also two letters exchanged between GNL and GoC  acknowledging that the Hibernia Net Profit Interest earnings owned by GoC have
been notionally offered to GNL.  These letters
do not have contractual language and merely signal an intent to begin an
intergovernmental process to develop agreements requiring subsequent approval.  Considerable time, effort, and luck will be required
to make this a reality.

The other document
released on July 28 was a GNL Technical Briefing slide deck provided to media explaining
a few details of the AIP and the rate mitigation measures including the
Hibernia NPI benefits.  Vital details on
required revenue, the actual expected dollar value of the measures, and energy
sales forecasts, were entirely missing and presumably won’t be released until
NL Hydro is compelled to do so for the Public Utilities Board.  Likewise, nothing is discussed regarding
risks.  The Technical Briefing is a carefully
manufactured viewpoint that GNL wants repeated by the media.

Debunking
the 6 Rate Mitigation Measures

GNL’s strategy in
promoting rate mitigation in the last few years involved repetitive efforts to pump
up fear of a major rate increase as soon as the entire Muskrat project is fully
commissioned, as is now expected in late 2021. 
In the Technical Briefing the do-nothing unmitigated cost is shown as
23.1 c/KWh.  Compared to the 12.5 c/KWh
cost of energy since the latest rate increase on July 1 of this year and especially
to those who know that for much of the last decade rates have hovered around
10-11 c/KWh, it’s a very scary threat of a rate increase.

With fearmongering well executed,
GNL – or more precisely, the Liberal Party and Premier Furey – has positioned
itself as the fixer who will mitigate rates. 
Their Technical Briefing outlined 6 GoC/GNL policy changes that they say
will reduce the unmitigated rate by 8.4 c/KWh to 14.7 c/KWh.  As 14.7 is much closer to 12.5, Furey was basking
in self-congratulatory excess, claiming he has saved ratepayers from the evil
Muskrat.

It isn’t so.  He has just stalled the inevitable and made
it worse by accepting more debt and interest costs.  What’s amazing is how soon his plan is likely
to entirely fall apart.  He has only laid
out the case for mitigating the rate in 2022 (see exhibit below).

While he promises rates will only rise by 2.25% annually afterwards, the
temporary nature of nearly all the rate mitigation measures shows that NL Hydro
will be devastatingly in arrears as it fails to collect enough money to pay its
bills in the years following.  It won’t
be long before NL Hydro will be going to the PUB demanding unplanned rate
increases to try and stay afloat.
 

#1 GoC
Investing $1.0B in the LIL

First and foremost, this
is a loan with some language around it, trying to help it masquerade as
something else.  This new loan is solely to
be used for the purpose of paying the interest due on other loans.  Some readers may know this concept – it’s
called being in the poorhouse. 

Premier Furey approves of
this concept.  Somehow, taking a project
that can’t afford the debt it already has and giving it more debt, is the
prescription to make things feel better. 
Sound more like a prescription to keep coming back to an inept doctor.

The fine print says GoC will
allow NL Hydro to borrow $150M per year until the full $1.0B is exhausted in 7
years time.  The Technical Briefing
indicates that the $150M will translate into 2.3 c/KWh of rate reduction.  That’s true only for the first 6 years and will
provide barely half that benefit in year 7. 
After 2028, the 2.3 c/KWh of rate relief disappears and is compounded by
interest costs adding another 0.5 c/KWh in burden.

The $1B bond is due in
2042.  This timing is surely selected to
coincide with the expiry of Hydro-Quebec’s low-price contract on Churchill
Falls power.  GNL and GoC must be
assuming that the new Churchill sales contract will either pay off the bond or at
least give NL Hydro the creditworthiness to take out a new bond to replace it.
 

#2 GoC
Waives FLG2 Bond Guarantee Fee

When the $2.9B second
round of debt was taken on, GoC imposed a 0.5% annual surcharge for providing
the loan guarantee.  This rate mitigation
measure appears that it will abolish the resulting $14.5M expense.  This is the only permanent cost reduction
presented in the entire AIP.  The
Technical Briefing pegged it as a 0.2 c/KWh reduction to rates.
 

#3 GoC
Providing $1.0B FLG3 to Reprofile Debt Payments to 2029

This is not extra money
although it has been disingenuously presented as such in many quarters
including by GNL and GoC.  What it does
is allow bond maturities that are scheduled to occur between now and 2029 to be
refinanced.  Instead of the original $7.9B
in FLG/FLG2 debt diminishing to $6.9B by 2029, it will remain at $7.9B.

What that means is that NL
Hydro won’t have to collect extra money in sinking funds to pay off those
maturing bonds.  The Technical Briefing
indicates 0.7 c/KWh rate mitigation from this tactic.  The flipside of the relief period is that
there is now more bond money owing and fewer years left to pay it off: a
sharper rate increase of about 4 c/KWh should be expected in 2029 to recommence
the sinking funds.  In addition, the
extra $1B in debt by 2029 incurs new interest costs growing to 0.5 c/KWh in new
rate impact.
 

#4 GNL
Restructuring $2.0B in MFLTA Equity to Preferred Shares

This one requires Dr.
Furey, the math and accounting expert, to explain how it is a benefit because
real math says it looks like a new cost.  
The Technical Briefing indicates a 1.5 c/KWh rate reduction suggesting
required revenues relative to the original agreements would decrease by about
$100M due to this measure.  The problem
is two-fold.

First, the original
agreements fully backloaded MFLTA equity return so there was nothing due on it
in the opening years of the 50-year payback period.  What Nalcor and GNL were doing was accruing
the earnings on the books to be paid out later while compounding full interest charges
of about 8.5% on the amount owed.  So how
does Furey’s math reduce something by $100M when it was already at zero?

Second, the new preferred
shares demand interest payments of 3%.  Starting
in 2022, ratepayers must pay an unexpected new expense of $60M to GNL.   GNL also did not indicate that utility
dividends shall stay within the utility for rate mitigation: it appears then
that GNL is intent on extracting as much cash as possible starting in 2022.

Put these two together and
instead of a cost reduction of $100M in 2022, it sure looks like there is a
cost increase of $60M.  Rather than
mitigating 1.5 c/KWh, GNL is going to drive an immediate and permanent 0.9
c/KWh rate increase.  This looks like a 2.4
c/KWh error in the rate calculation.

Either GNL has made a
horrible math blunder or they have some hidden cost adjustment plan that they
have not yet revealed.  Perhaps like all
good loansharks, they intend to take the deficit amount of $160M and throw it
in their deferred ROE accrual account where it can earn 8.5% return to
supposedly make more money off ratepayers. 
The illusions of voodoo economics have yet loosened their grip and
appear to have made a new friend in Furey.
 

#5
One-Time Refund of Financial Reserves

With this one, it appears there
is money already set aside that is no longer required to meet the existing
agreement conditions.  The key word is
“one-time”: the refund will go straight to ratepayers for 2022 only.  The stated rate relief of 0.8 c/KWh won’t be
available in 2023 and onward.
 

#6
Hibernia NPI Provided By Province

The Technical Briefing
claims 2.9 c/KWh rate mitigation benefit which indicates an expected cash flow
of about $190M from this source.  There
are serious risks associated with this assumption.

Firstly, the mention of
any Hibernia NPI benefits is completely absent from the formal AIP.  What we have here looks awfully like an
election promise by PM Trudeau that could be at serious risk if this province
does not return a high number of Liberal MPs and if Trudeau cannot form a
majority government.  Ratepayers should
be very wary this promise may not be fulfilled. 

Secondly, the alleged sum
of $3.2B in transfers extends to Hibernia’s expected decommissioning date in
2047.  Between now and then a lot could
change that can jeopardize returns.  Will
Hibernia continue to operate all that time and do so efficiently?  And what of the price of oil and potential profitability
from which NPI is calculated?  That
profitability has never been better than now but that may be a short-term
condition.

Between bald-faced
electioneering and the economic risk of oil prices sagging or of increasingly
environmentally focused regulatory schemes reducing profit, the eventual benefit
to ratepayers may be severely overestimated. 
In the not impossible worst case, this rate relief item could disappear
entirely.
 

The
Unstated Hidden Cost of Steadily Rising Utility Costs and Falling Electricity
Usage

What Furey has done is put
all the benefits in play for 2022 and conveniently ignored that most of them
will fall away over time and some may not be realized at all.  He carefully chose not to provide any future
looking information other than to claim 2.25% rate increases will cover all
required revenues.

A key problem going
forward though is that steadily rising utility costs are likely to continue at
an annual rate of 1-2% and that electricity usage, apart from a post-pandemic
rebound into next year, is likely to show declines of at least 1%
annually.  Falling sales and rising utility
costs will fully absorb those 2.25% rate increases. 

Theses factors mean there
won’t be anything available from the rate increases to meet the foreseeable
rising costs of Muskrat payback.  5 of
the above mitigation items are temporary or at risk of not being realized.  NL Hydro will be going to the PUB for large
rate adjustments on a frequent basis.

The possible unreliability
of Muskrat operations is another major cost risk borne by ratepayers in Furey’s
scheme.  NL Hydro must act to recover all
unanticipated repair expenses and excess fuel costs from ratepayers.
 

A Weak
Plan Only Leads to More Debt and Economic Demise

Premier Furey announced
his unprepared and ineffective plan likely because his pal the Prime Minister had
told him he was out of time and options. 
With a federal election imminent he trotted out his inadequate plan and tried
to spin it as best he could, designing it mainly to extract maximum rate
reduction in 2022 at the expense of everything else in the future.

If the downsides and risks
play out as identified in this assessment, while rates are held to only the
2.25% escalation plan, NL Hydro could be in the hole by over $100M in just a
year or two. That would need only either item #5 or #6 to fail as noted. 

If the plan is as hapless
as it looks, NL Hydro’s cumulative unforeseen debt could be approaching $1B in
as little as 4 years when NL Hydro’s breakeven rates may need to be in excess
of 20 c/KWh but Furey’s rate promise would have it at barely 16 c/KWh.  By 2029, the required rate differential may
exceed 10 c/KWh.

Within another two or
three years, Furey or his successor will be electioneering on the next phase of
fixing Muskrat.  Perhaps they will convert
the last of the equity to preferred shares and do more borrowing against
long-awaited post-2041 Churchill Falls income.

For politicians, Muskrat
is the gift that won’t stop giving them more opportunities to grandstand.  For ratepayers, it is the nightmare that will
never end. 

When it comes to Premier
Furey’s new rate mitigation plan as the remedy for what ails ratepayers, don’t be
surprised when feverish rate increases soon cause your condition to dramatically worsen.  Best you find a new doctor.

Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.

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