Private power plants could lead to ATCO takeover: union

Premier Dennis Fentie is manoeuvring for a revived attempt to privatize energy generation in the territory, says the Yukon Employees' Union president.

Premier Dennis Fentie is manoeuvring for a revived attempt to privatize energy generation in the territory, says the Yukon Employees’ Union president.

The union is mailing anti-privatization flyers to every Yukon household warning the public of Fentie’s understated support of future privatization, said Laurie Butterworth.

“It worries me, it worries us and it should worry all Yukoners,” said Butterworth.

The government is working on an “independent power producer” policy with ATCO that could open the door to big energy companies incrementally gaining control of the Yukon’s electrical grid, he said.

The policy, which is being drafted this fall, according to a July 6 government news release, would set down the ground rules for big companies and small entrepreneurs interested in building everything from personal solar panels to large hydro dams, which could then sell energy onto the Yukon’s electrical grid.

Beyond admitting its existence, Fentie has been tightlipped about the policy.

“You’d have all these little power plants out there, and then somewhere along the line, a big conglomerate comes along and says there’s some money to be made here, like ATCO,” said Butterworth.

Independent power producers would become a crutch for the government, which would stop investing in public energy generation, he said.

The union, which represents 51 employees at the publicly owned Yukon Energy Corporation, has sent two letters to Fentie demanding that private incursions in the energy sector be stymied, said Butterworth.

Both of Fentie’s responses muddied the privatization question.

“We’re still not sure what he’s doing because any letter we got back from him leaves it open-ended,” said Butterworth.

“All we’re getting back is ‘no one is privatizing at this time,’” he said. “It’s the ‘at this time’ that we start getting worried.”

Publicly, Fentie has always buttressed his condemnation of energy privatization with subtle caveats.

“It doesn’t change the issue,” said Fentie on September 16, referring to his admission that secret negotiations with Alberta-based ATCO were a mistake.

“The issue is, how do we address on an ongoing basis the delivery of affordable, reliable energy to the Yukon?” he said.

The seven-month negotiations initially involved the outright sale of Yukon Energy assets to ATCO, but were then scaled back to a merger proposal between the Crown corporation and ATCO’s subsidiary, the Yukon Electrical Company Limited.

But Fentie’s deal came to a halt after Yukon Energy board directors resigned, negotiation documents were leaked and Brad Cathers, a high-ranking cabinet minister, alleged that Fentie “lied” about the talks. Cathers resigned in protest of Fentie’s handling of the matter.

“In the future, if the government should decide to move forward with the proposal and benefits for the Yukon were recognized, this information would be submitted to government for approval,” said deputy minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Shirley Abercrombie on August 11, referring to the ATCO talks.

While ATCO’s merger proposal has been shelved, for now, the government’s independent power producer policy has received little attention despite offering similar opportunities to Outside corporations, said Butterworth.

ATCO, an energy giant with over $9 billion in shares, is closely involved in writing the policy, according to the general manager of Yukon Electrical.

“There’s a number of things being looked at from a policy point of view,” said Jerome Babyn in June.

Independent power producers are large-scale sources of generation, like a wind farm, said Babyn.

“That could change how generation is done in the Yukon,” he said.

Independent power producers are not utilities in their own right, but a utility company can bid to build a stand-alone power plant.

“When you need generation, you call on the marketplace to deliver that to you,” said Babyn. “And a utility, in some cases, can put in a bid.”

ATCO runs independent power plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

The union’s flyers, printed with a background of the Yukon Energy-run Whitehorse dam, urges Yukoners to phone their legislative member to demand energy stay public.

“Yukon energy dollars should not flow south,” it reads.

The union may bolster its campaign should the independent power producer policy prove heavily pro-privatization, said Butterworth.

“I’m really hoping this is a dead issue,” he said. “But my trust has been broken on what I thought was public property.”

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