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Green power ‘biggest challenge’ facing Nova Scotia regulator, outgoing chairman says

Nova Scotia

The chairman of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board says the province will need more hydroelectricity to meet strict environmental standards that will close all coal-fired electric plants by 2030.

Peter Gurnham is retiring after 18 years as chairman of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.(Mark Crosby/CBC)

The chairman of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board says the province will need more hydroelectricity to meet strict environmental standards that will close all coal-fired electric plants by 2030.

After 18 years as chairman of the quasi-judicial regulatory board, Peter Gurnham will step down at the end of the month. Navigating a decarbonized future awaits his successor, he said.

"Clearly the biggest challenge the new chair is going to have is how we're going to meet these carbon targets both 2030 and 2050, because we need to be net neutral by 2050," Gurnham said in a rare interview with CBC News.

"A lot of this hinges on access to reliable hydro, which is in abundance in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, not in Nova Scotia."

Gurnham said Hydro Quebec is a likely source, provided the grid connection with New Brunswick is improved to carry it into Nova Scotia.

The most important case during his tenure involved greening the grid — approving the Maritime Link to deliver hydroelectricity from Labrador to Nova Scotia Power customers.

More green electricity needed

The review board issued its final decision on the megaproject earlier this month, authorizing Nova Scotia Power-parent company Emera to collect $1.7 billion from ratepayers over the next 35 years.

Emera's Newfoundland and Labrador partner, Nalcor, bungled its part of the project, but contracted amounts of Muskrat Falls hydroelectricity are now being delivered via the 177-kilometre Maritime Link subsea cable across the Cabot Strait — albeit years late.

Gurnham said more green electricity will be needed when Nova Scotia Power's coal-fired generation plants close in eight years.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are lobbying Ottawa to help with the cost of upgrading interprovincial grid connections — dubbed the Atlantic Loop — as a way to help wean the provinces from coal.

"It's going to mean higher power rates unless policymakers come up with money, taxpayer money or government money that can assist with some of this," said Gurnham.

"Obviously, if that comes to pass, that will lessen the impact on ratepayers. But absent that, those coal plants were prudent when they were built, and Nova Scotia Power is entitled to recover their prudent costs with respect to those plants.

"At the same time, they have to find clean energy to keep the lights on. So it's a big challenge, but it's being worked on, on various fronts and the board will react to whatever assignments we're given."

Board not well understood by public

Without the Atlantic Loop, he said natural gas would be required.

In addition to regulating electricity, the review board also oversees auto insurance, water rates, natural gas, buses, gaming, payday loans, the Halifax-Dartmouth bridges, municipal planning appeals and municipal boundaries.

Its full-time staff of 30 and eight full-time board members regulate 38 provincial statutes.

Lori Turnbull, director of the Dalhousie University School of Public Administration, said the regulator has a "significant role in a lot of things that really affect your daily life from a cost perspective," yet is not well understood by the public.

"We focus on elected officials. We focus on the power of the premier. It's about accountability, too. When we elect people, we expect to hold them to account for decisions they make," said Turnbull.

"While on one hand it is good that it is an independent board and not political, on the other it means there is not that direct public accountability."

Gurnham said one of his biggest challenges during his tenure was to make the board more transparent, and he feels he achieved that.

To promote public confidence, credibility and transparency, Gurnham made its operations open to the public. Cameras were allowed into hearings and proceedings and evidence is now posted online.

Gurnham also brought on a consumer advocate to protect the interests of Nova Scotia Power's 400,000 residential customers and an advocate for small business.

Not enough informed coverage

Still, the review board is often lumped in as an accomplice of Nova Scotia Power — the most important company it regulates and a favourite villain on social media.

Gurnham said he doesn't read unsigned comments — "Otherwise I'd go crazy."

He added that the disappearance of informed mainstream media coverage of its hearings and decisions in recent years has had an impact.

"With the exception of the CBC and AllNovaScotia.com, we don't see much mainstream media here anymore. So Nova Scotians, unfortunately, are finding out about what we do on Facebook," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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