Friday, November 9, 2012

Electricity Data and Narrative

Comment on the role of data in a society driven by narrative.

A recent post at Tom Adams Energy gave an Ontariocentric call for data reporting in a Canadian jurisdiction along the lines of the the United States' Energy Information Administration (EIA).  Mr. Adams may have been unaware that Dr. Michal C. Moore of the The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary authored a paper earlier this year with an overview of a national structure that might fill the role of the national EIA structure in the US.  Dr. Moore's paper saw a central data organization, namely Statistics Canada, collecting the data that would be manipulated/interpretted by an independent organization.

The issue I have with the paper is it assumed Statistics Canada excelled at collecting data.  That may be true, but I found reason to be skeptical..   The uproar over the change to the long-form census, which somehow entered the mainstream, reflected, in my opinion, the often conflicting goals of maintaining the same processes, and standards, in data collection to ensure data integrity between census years, and the desire to collect the best data possible - which is now frequently in databases throughout the government to be collected through the data mining of critical systems, and not intermittent surveying outside of those systems.  As an example, most federal funding for provincial programming is not based on census figures, but the ongoing population estimates (and census counts are adjusted based on the population estimates).


Recently Statistics Canada made freely available its CANSIM databases.  My experience with that data increased my opinion that Statistics Canada is less about data and more about interpreting data - that may not be a bad thing, but it is certainly a bad thing in terms of the thesis that Statistics Canada would provide the data and expert bodies at some new multi-governmental agency, the University of Calgary, or Tom Adams Energy, would provide the context.

One example Mr. Adams provided of "black holes in the official information currently available" is "average commercial rates in any year."    CANSIM Table 329-0050 provides that type of data; it is decreased in value as it is presented not in a monetary value per unit ($/MWh), or even a monetary value rationalized to a base year (ie. all figures adjusted to 2005 dollars), but the data is presented in terms of the percentage of 1997 price, with the series starting in 1981 but terminating in 2011).    This makes the data limited for comparing between jurisdictions.  Nonetheless, data is never perfect, so one works with what is available unless they want to experience the drudgery of data collection.

The data is still of utility in comparing the trend in non-residential electricity pricing to other trends, such as the ability of the provincial government to balance it's books.  On the topic, another article that caught my attention today, as it was flagged by Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner was "Diagnosing Ontario’s Christmas Pony Syndrome."  I have a very different opinion on the debt from the old Ontario Hydro days than the writer of that piece, but this paragraph inspired me:
Ontario was still addicted to this fiscal confection when Mike Harris added another thick layer of alluring icing in 1995. He ran for premier on a public promise to freeze power rates for his entire term – without first daring to look at Hydro’s books. He won huge, and kept his word. Four years later our provincial utility effectively became bankrupt under the weight of $38 billion in publicly-owed debt.
Graphing the CANSIM Table  329-0050 data along with the annual budget deficits in Ontario, it doesn't appear freezing rates had any detrimental impact on the finances of the government (it also shows the price freeze occurred prior to 1995's election).

Government finances improved consistently throughout the period electricity rates were frozen despite the increasing the accounting of debt on the government's electricity unit.  It gives reason to question the current PC Leader on exactly what he means by treating electricity policy as economic policy, and not as social policy.  It must be noted that as of January 1, 2011, the government introduced a new pricing scheme for large users (industrial or, sadly, educational) that would show a drastic drop in rates for the "over 5000kW" group.

In the early 1990's the fascination with running the government as a business took hold (this is the time Ontario Realty Corporation was formed - a 2 decade long flop of an attempt at treating government facilities as real estate assets).  It was probably somewhat of a change in perspective to break out debt into different boxes.  There is no real differentiation between OPG, Hydro One, ORC, and Ontario government debt (check the debt ratings), and there was no real differentiation between the old Ontario Hydro debt and Ontario government debt.  The assumption that Ontario Hydro debt had any negative impact on Ontario's finances is unsubstantiated.  Certainly in the immediate period following Darlington becoming fully operational, the opposite may have been the case.

There was no distinct "Ontario Hydro" that could go bankrupt, while economic growth appears to have cancelled out the overall fiscal impact of freezing electricity rates.

At the rates the government pays in interest charges now, the enormous sounding $38 billion would require annual debt payments of about $1.7 billion of which the government already collects ~$1 billion as a debt retirement charge (which hasn't been used to retire debt for years, but....), while selling the output from the public generator (OPG) for ~$2 billion a year more than the public generator is paid.   For that debt we have the generating assets of OPG and the transmission and distribution assets of Hydro One.

The $38 billion aside, it's not clear that increasing the charges to industrial customers isn't entirely counterproductive.

Another interesting combination of data: CANSIM with the IESO's data on monthly consumption for wholesale customers (Table 3.3.3 here has data since market opening in May 2002).  Wholesale demand dropped steadily from late in 2004 to mid-2008, at which point it dropped off a cliff before stabilizing in mid-2009.  In May 2002 the price for the largest non-residential customers was about the same as it was in 1997, and therefore 1992.
Today it still is - and the government is still fighting to bring large industrial users back to Ontario with further price offers driving the price well below the frozen rates of the Harris years.

There is enough data to note the reality that jurisdictions have very little ability to increase pricing to industrial users without losing them,  The reality would seem to be that calls for higher electricity rates will increasingly mean higher rates for primarily residential users.

Data is available to show how much more onerous increasing the costs of energy are on low income households which obviously spend a much greater share of disposable income on energy.

I could dig some of it out, but "shit travels downhill" is one common narrative I won't be trying to disprove.



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