Manitoba NDP says it would freeze Hydro rates, but no details yet on how

Manitoba’s Opposition New Democrats promised Tuesday to freeze electricity rates if they win next year’s provincial election but offered no details on how they might do so.

Energy rates at Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro are set by the provincial regulator, the Public Utilities Board, which the NDP has promised to keep free from political interference.

“The government can establish the conditions under which you would ensure that the PUB would return a rate freeze or better, and I very much look forward to outlining those steps to you as we get closer to the next election,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said when asked for details.

Manitoba Hydro, under both NDP and Progressive Conservative governments, has been awarded rate increases annually. The highest in recent years was a five per cent increase under the former NDP government.

But Moody’s, an international credit rating agency, warned last spring that the rate hikes have not been high enough to keep up with rising costs.

Manitoba Hydro saw its debt triple in 15 years as it built two megaprojects, the Bipole III transmission line and the Keeyask generating station, under the former NDP government. The projects ran a combined $3.7 billion over budget.

Moody’s said Manitoba Hydro has weak financial metrics and higher debt than utilities in other provinces, putting its ability to be self-sustaining at risk.

Cameron Friesen, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, said the utility needs to start reducing its debt.

“That has to be addressed. The NDP says it’s self-correcting. No experts believe that,” Friesen said.

The NDP promise came as the Tory government was in the process of passing a bill on electricity rates. The bill would set debt-reduction targets for the utility while also capping any annual rate hike at a maximum of five per cent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

The NDP has said the debt-reduction targets, along with other measures in the bill, would lead to higher rates than necessary. A final vote on the bill is expected this week.

The next provincial election is scheduled for Oct. 3 of next year, although Premier Heather Stefanson has not ruled out an earlier date.

Opinion polls in recent months have suggested the NDP hold a strong lead over the Tories, especially in Winnipeg, home to more than half the seats in the legislature.