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Battle brewing over power in the Northwest Territories

The provision of power to northern homes is becoming the subject of a bitter political dispute in the Northwest Territories.

Back in December last year, Hay River decided not to renew Northland Utilities’ contract to distribute the town’s power. Town officials said the cost of power had to come down, and one way to do that was getting power companies to compete for the town’s business.

This week, the town started that process by asking for proposals from power companies. In doing so, the town also sparked a fierce debate over how northern power is supplied and governed.

Read: Hay River mayor – community backs power decision

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Northland is expected to bid for its old contract back – but one rival will be the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC), which is owned by the territorial government.

Earlier this week, ministers declared they supported NTPC’s right to bid for that contract. “It is important that every opportunity to reduce the cost of living and the costs to local businesses in Hay River is pursued,” said Premier Bob McLeod, in a statement explicitly endorsing NTPC’s participation in the bidding.

That’s a source of huge contention for Northland, and for some politicians. Northland says the government – by promoting NTPC’s right to compete for Hay River’s power contract – is effectively trying to force Northland out of business.

“This government decision creates an unlevel playing field,” claimed Darrell Beaulieu, chief executive of Denendeh Investments, which part-owns Northland.

“This is a blatant case of political interference and market disruption of the NWT business community.”

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According to Beaulieu, rather than lowering costs, a successful NTPC bid to supply Hay River would end up costing NWT residents even more money. He claims that’s because NTPC would have to buy out the assets Northland currently uses to supply that power, at a cost of “tens of millions of dollars”.

On top of that, Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny accused the territory of “a hidden agenda that has secretly changed our energy policy without public oversight”.

He feels the government’s open support for NTPC amounts to making a big decision on how the territory’s energy market should work, without actually consulting anyone.

In the legislature on Thursday, Dolynny said the Premier had launched a “ticker tape parade” of support for NTPC that made the Hay River bid look like a “done deal”. Dolynny called it political interference.

Michael Miltenberger is the minister responsible for the power corporation. In responding, he appeared to allude to Northland’s part-ownership by a multinational company headquartered outside the territory – Atco – implying it’s not quite David to the government’s Goliath.

Power rates – who pays what in the NWT?

Yellowknife: Northland Utilities rate schedule (pdf)
Hay River: Northland Utilities rate schedule (pdf)
NTPC: Rates across the NWT

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Miltenberger acknowledged that the government’s close relationship with the power corporation needs to be addressed.

But he added: “The government has been very consistent in its approach to energy; to the power corporation; to how we deliver power; our emphasis on the cost of living.

“It’s very, very simple. We have the proof before us. You have one community at 31 cents per kilowatt [the price of power in Hay River, served by Northland, according to Miltenberger]. You have two neighbouring communities at 21 cents per kilowatt [Fort Resolution and Fort Smith, served by NTPC].

“Can we effect a positive change? Yes, we can. I believe that we will significantly close that gap if that opportunity is presented to the power corporation.”

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