If we turn off the lights and insulate our attics, can we postpone the construction of the Keeyask dam and save ourselves billions?
That is one key question driving the upcoming hearings into the future of Manitoba Hydro and the fate of its long-entrenched plan to spend $16.4 billion building two massive northern dams.
The province, in a new and oft-repeated talking point, says Manitoba will run out of power in 2022 -- less than a decade away. It maintains the only way to fend off brownouts and make good on lucrative export contracts signed with Wisconsin and Minnesota is to quit dithering and build the next generation of mega-dams on the Nelson River -- Keeyask and then Conawapa -- and a new power line to the United States.
That will be the crux of Hydro's argument at the awkwardly named Needs For and Alteratives To hearings early next year, called to hash out whether Hydro's plans make sense.
But, critics -- everyone from environmentalists to consumer advocates to church folk -- are increasingly skeptical of Hydro's proposals, which come with significant rate hikes. Instead of generating more power, why don't we try using less? And why is Manitoba Hydro so consistently pessimistic about our ability to conserve?
"Given that (conservation) is a well-established supply option for utilities around the world, and a practice that clearly looks toward a future in which energy consumption will need to be curtailed, we are puzzled that it seems to be ignored as an alternative to Keeyask and Conawapa," wrote the Interchurch Council on Hydropower to the province's utility regulator in late June. "In short, (conservation) might be a cheaper, greener, less risky way to meet Manitoba's energy needs."
And those needs are big.
The province is expected to suck up 1.6 per cent more power every year for the next two decades. A cold climate and a growing population are responsible for part of that, but it's worth noting other places, such as Vermont and even California, have succeeded in essentially halting load growth.
And, when it comes to the existing suite of Power Smart conservation programs -- free insulation for low-income homeowners, geothermal loans, rebates for decommissioning old fridges, loans for high-efficiency furnaces -- Hydro is spending less than planned, sparking criticism that the company is shirking its commitment to conservation.
Hydro spent nearly 20 per cent less than planned last year on Power Smart programs and is spending about 20 per cent less again this year than forecast.
In expert testimony earlier this year that crystallized many of the complaints about Hydro's conservation programs, well-respected energy expert Phillippe Dunksy told the Public Utilities Board Hydro's conservation efforts have fallen behind other utilities.
Dunsky said conservation is the cheapest way to balance supply and demand and noted many utilities are targeting one per cent to 2.6 per cent savings from conservation efforts. Manitoba Hydro targets 0.3 per cent.
Hydro-watchers, including Public Interest Law Centre director Byron Williams and Will Braun from the Interchurch Council on Hydropower, argue that Hydro failed to fully consider conservation as a legitimate option when it stress-tested a batch of generation and transmission permutations and settled on the plan to build Keeyask, Conawapa and an import-export power line to the United States.
"None of the alternatives were driven in whole or in part by demand-side management," said Williams, who represents the Manitoba branch of the Consumers' Association of Canada. "None put energy efficiency on equal footing with other supply sources."
That's a little bit true, acknowledges Manitoba Hydro's Ed Wojczynski, who is in charge of the public-review process for all new projects.
The company has studied how much more conservation is possible, but a consultant was supposed to take that research to the next level by looking at costs -- how much it might cost to, say, double or quadruple Hydro's Power Smart programs, and whether the company would get enough megawatts for the bucks. That study is late, and so its results aren't fully rolled into Hydro's massive submission to the Public Utilities Board.
Even so, Wojczynski said Hydro looked generally at what might happen if it doubled Power Smart programs, a reasonable goal, or quadrupled them, which is a bit more utopian.
Put simply, even with a Power Smart program on steroids, Hydro says the case for Keeyask, Conawapa and more transmission to the United States is still solid -- and is the company's preferred option.
For example, if Hydro made good on its major export contracts and built an interconnection to the U.S. border while also quadrupling conservation efforts, Keeyask would still be needed by 2020.
The other hitch is Hydro is keen to build a 750-megawatt power line to the U.S. to boost exports and backstop the system's reliability by allowing Hydro to import power from the U.S. in a pinch. The line is part of a deal with American customers, and contingent on the sale of green power from Keeyask. No dam, no power line.
Lloyd Kuczek, Hydro's vice-president of customer care and energy conservation, says Hydro's conservation forecasts are very conservative, leaving out programs such as a new pilot project that is converting dozens of homes to geothermal heat on two reserves. And it doesn't include new programs likely to be in full swing by the time Keeyask is built, such as encouraging Manitobans to use LED lights, or smart meters that allow homeowners to monitor their energy use in real time.
But it's risky to rely on conservation instead of new generation to supply the province's electricity needs. If one big, power-sucking industry, such as a Facebook data farm or a new northern smelter, sets up shop in the province, that could leave Hydro without enough power to meet demand, especially if a new northern dam such as Keeyask wasn't in place for backup.
And Manitobans can't be relied on to go green. If Hydro banks on saving 695 MW instead of building the Keeyask dam, there's little evidence Manitobans would embrace the conservation efforts needed to meet the target.
Despite a huge advertising push and an ever-expanding list of enticements such as loans and rebates, Manitobans haven't exactly taken full advantage of them -- which is one reason Hydro has downgraded spending on Power Smart. Even the new batch of low-income programs, which offer free or bargain-basement insulation and furnaces to poor homeowners, has seen disappointing take-up, said Kuczek.
"You'd think there'd be a lineup out our door," he said. "That's not the case."