Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Some good ideas don't cost money

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This is the first of a three-part series on the April 17 Manitoba budget.

It's time this story was told, and a few days before the provincial budget is a good time to tell it. In October 2009, the presidents of major think-tanks in Canada came to Winnipeg to frame a Canadian energy strategy.

Just showing up was remarkable enough. By all accounts, it was the first time in Canadian history they were in the same place at the same time talking about the same thing. More remarkably, what emerged a day later was an agreement that came to be known as "the Winnipeg Consensus."

Is this a big deal? Well, in the first place, since Pierre Trudeau's national energy program of the 1970s, no politician has dared utter the words national and energy in the same sentence for fear of being hung in effigy in Calgary or Red Deer.

But then American President Barack Obama visited Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his first foreign trip and invited Harper to join the United States in a clean-energy discussion.

But how can we engage the Americans if we don't have a policy of our own? So the think-tanks took their fresh and fragile consensus, invited leaders from the energy sector and a group of environmentalists to a meeting in Banff in April 2010 and, lo and behold, the consensus held, broadened and deepened.

The group reconvened in Winnipeg a few months later. This time, six deputy ministers, five from the provinces and one from Ottawa, joined the discussion. Premier Greg Selinger, who had welcomed the think-tank presidents to Manitoba in October 2009, gave a keynote address fully supportive of the initiative.

Last summer, Canada's energy ministers, federal and provincial, met in Kananaskis, Alta., and invited representatives of the Winnipeg Consensus Group, including the Business Council of Manitoba, to present their work.

Just six weeks ago, a group of leaders representing think-tanks from every region of the country, private-sector leaders and NGOs met in Halifax to prepare some advice for Canada's premiers, who will meet there this summer. Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter spoke and promised to put a Canadian energy strategy on the agenda of that meeting of the Council of the Federation. He's the chairman this year.

From nowhere, oblivion even, to the premiers' agenda in less than three years is an impressive accomplishment.

The framework sets out the most important elements of a national strategy: movement towards carbon pricing, market diversification, energy literacy and conservation, innovation and the development of renewable technologies and regulatory reform.

This leads to Manitoba's role and how next week's budget can help position this province to lead an initiative that should be critical to our future prosperity. Manitoba Hydro is a piston driving Manitoba's economy. It's a public company and politics will make sure it stays that way for a long time. Public ownership, however, doesn't mean the Crown corporation can't act creatively or champion innovation. The time is right for fresh thinking. Scott Thomson is the new CEO who brings vitality to the executive suite and the board leadership has changed.

The competitive environment within which Manitoba Hydro operates has changed dramatically in a very short time.

The low price of natural gas means we are selling electricity on the spot market to the Americans at a loss, while the discovery of shale gas has given our future customers more choices. The billions of dollars of capital investment in current and proposed dam construction, along with a multibillion-dollar transmission line taking power from the north to the south, is a riskier proposition than it was when Manitoba Hydro developed its long-term strategy years ago.

The elements of the proposed Canadian Energy Strategy offer a neat fit for the new leadership at Manitoba Hydro. Our Crown utility can be more aggressive developing renewable technologies, clean technologies. It can look to diversify markets, especially east and west. It should continue and expand its leadership role promoting conservation. It can lead a campaign to engage citizens in energy literacy. It ought to be a strong voice advocating rational regulatory reform, and it can offer some advice on moving toward a carbon-pricing mechanism.

Pricing electricity appropriately should also be on the agenda. Low rates encourage consumption, not conservation. Moving rates toward market values should be a goal.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers is faced with the toughest fiscal squeeze since the New Democrats took power in 1999. Spending has eclipsed revenue growth, deficits are on the rise and new arrangements with Ottawa are a sobering prospect.

Some good ideas don't cost money. Give Manitoba Hydro a green light to harness the possibilities of fresh talent to lead Manitoba, and Canada, into a future energy economy that takes advantage of bountiful resources, progressive values and entrepreneurial thinking.

Jim Carr is president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, a group of CEOs of Manitoba's leading companies.

TOMORROW: With courage, we can.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 A12

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