Hydro-Québec: "Ça suffit!"

Par Beryl Wajsman le 9 mars 2015

It is undignified, insulting and misleading for the Quebec Régie de l'énergie to put a positive spin on it's decision to allow Hydro a 2.9% rate increase instead of the asked for 3.9%. The implication that the Board was somehow protecting the public is nonsense. This Board has allowed almost 13% increases over the last three years. Neither inflation, nor the cost of production, nor our incomes have gone up anywhere near that mark. This is simply a hidden tax with one pocket of the government refilling the other pocket of the government. It is time to paraphrase René Levesque when he finished the nationalization of Hydro, as a member of the Lesage government, and say to the utility monopoly, "Ça suffit!"

Let's remember why nationalization of private energy companies was started under the Liberal government of Adélard Godbout during the early 1940s. Energy companies, despite the war effort, were doing nothing to make things easier here at home. Despite Quebec having the highest proportion of its citizens in uniform than any North American jurisdiction. Soldiers' families suffered. People were having to choose between buying food or paying the heating bill. Dozens died in their beds because they had no heat. The same situation was still ongoing in the winter of 1961-62 when Jean Lesage finished the job started by Godbout and nationalized Shawinigan Power and Light, Montreal's main supplier.

A public utility is a public trust. It is a tort to use it as a reserve bank to fund wasteful government spending. Especially at a time of economic challenge when many, particularly seniors on fixed incomes, are again having to choose between food and heat. Might we suggest to Premier Couillard that instead of rate increases, he could annul the promised $400 million to the Beaudoin family for a useless ciment plant in the Gaspé. The ciment market has just about crashed, and if the Beaudoin's want to build one - well - somewhere in its Bombardier empire they can find the money.

Our hydro power is among the cheapest to produce in the world. We`re really good at it. It is as comparatively cheap as the Saudi wellhead price of $5 to produce a barrel of oil. But our Hydro  is being sold to Quebecers at some of the highest rates in North America  Higher even than that being sold to the New England states. But the worst comes in all-electric buildings. That’s Quebec’s dirty little secret. Hydro gives subsidies to property owners to switch off oil or natural gas (the cheapest and cleanest) to all-electric. That`s good for building owners because it places the tenants directly at loggerheads with the utility and the landlords have no obligation to supply heat. 

But what Hydro  fails to inform taxpayers of is that energy costs, particularly in winter, are much more expensive in all-electric buildings than those on oil or gas. Not a bit more, but between 250-300% more. And why is is that high? Because Hydro can charge what it likes. It’s our own little OPEC.

Pensions are frozen, your salaries only creep up and then bump you into a higher tax bracket but Hydro increases by almost four times the rate of inflation annually. Hydro has a duty to inform so that consumers can make proper choices. When Kathleen Weil was Consumer Affairs Minister she put through reforms forcing telcos to stop the fine-print contracts. Well, it`s time for some protection of consumers against Hydro`s hidden costs.

It is fitting that  three top executives at Hydro-Quebec left their posts in the past weeks. They include President Thierry Vandal and vice-president Marie-Josée Nadeau. Perhaps it will focus public attention on the unprincipled and unpredecedented machinations of a government entity that has made almost $2 billion in profit over the past year.

If Hydro is to be allowed to operate as a private company with profit - not service - as the driving motive, then why not take an example from France and privatize part of it. When France found that its state electrical monopoly could not squeee the public anymore on rates, it put 40% of the shares on the public stock markets. By raising money in the markets, France actually managed to drop rates for users. When this was suggested to Premier Marois she said it would jeopardize the "patrimony" that Hydro represents. It's not patrimony, it's robbery.

We have found seniors living in 900 foot apartments with $1100 Hydro bills in the mid-Nov. to mid-Jan. billing cycle. Average  wait time for customer service is 32 minutes. And last year the utility set a record for cutoffs with 51,000.

Here's the bottom line: Hydro is being used as a financial printing press by the state; it is compromising people's security and health and is heartless in its services. Hydro-Québec, the message is clear: enough is enough!


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Beryl P. Wajsman

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