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Renewable energy: transparency urgently needed over Belco plans

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A very timely opinion written by Bill Jewell, a retired former senior engineering manager at Belco, appearing in the May 7 Royal Gazette clearly demonstrates in shocking clarity Belco's disregard for even considering renewable energy alternatives in any significant manner for the past 20 years.

Its commitment has been and is now to fossil fuels, regardless of the studies conducted in Bermuda on wind potential as early as 2000-01, or the contents of White Papers and Green Papers produced by the Government in 2011 committing to wind and solar goals in a significant manner by 2020, or the 2014 Bermuda offshore wind study prepared for the Government by the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. Even many of the clearly stated objectives of the Electricity Act 2016 appear in contradiction of Belco's views.

Belco's past performance and current commitments present a myopic view towards bringing Bermuda's energy production and delivery system more in line with the revolution in now cost-effective renewable technology that has already taken place in the world around us to offer less expensive, cleaner, more environmentally acceptable solutions in providing electricity

The minor commitments to cleaner renewables that Belco has made in the past appear to have been fig leafs — token gestures of public-relations window dressing — to cover its core commitment to liquefied natural gas or fossil fuels.

If Belco continues with its plan, the power will be generated by a massive investment in a large, and potentially partially redundant, facility as our future. If the commitment to a volatile regasification facility for LNG is accepted, use of renewables will be most likely doomed for many generations because of the huge but currently unknown capital costs of the investments to be made under the Belco proposal.

For the true believers in the science of climate change, LNG's methane release at source of extraction is reported to remain in the atmosphere 80 times longer than CO², has a far worse impact on the planet than our present use of heavy fuels, and overrides whatever savings in the reduction of carbon emissions that Bermuda may experience if the change to LNG is made.

In Belco's own integrated resource plan submission, the overall energy cost from LNG/natural gas is shown as the highest cost option with existing fuel oil now used by Belco combined with solar projected as a cheaper source of energy.

In Belco's IRP, detailed study data of the many issues affecting Bermuda if LNG were used is absent. Safety issues surrounding LNG are not addressed, nor are the known dangers surrounding the hazardous regasification of the LNG, nor details on the cost of special storage facilities necessary, the costs and safety of a pipeline to send the substance from the delivery port of entry to the plant.

If the location of the pipeline is to pass through a Bermuda national park and the Railway Trail, the Bermuda people need to have a full and transparent discussion now on this subject, as a new pipeline appears to be in conflict with the present usage of this facility and laws protecting national parks.

The stringent detailed studies surrounding LNG need to be put before the Bermuda people. Bermuda is stuck with a foreign buyer believing LNG is acceptable, as such potential bidders are looking only at Belco's submission of its version of the IRP and its longstanding commitment to LNG as Bermuda's best way forward.

It appears from the May 7 Ascendant first-quarter earnings release and accompanying commentary, or lack thereof, that Belco continues to ignore the Government and Bermuda public's expressed desires to include more renewables in its IRP, which is under consideration and review by the independent Regulatory Authority of Bermuda. While the Belco/Ascendant release had no specific announcement concerning the IRP or the status of potential bids under review to sell Ascendant to a foreign purchaser, one can only speculate from two senior executive statements in the earnings release.

According to The Royal Gazette, Sean Durfy, Ascendant's chief executive, said: “The company continues to execute its strategic five-year plan with much progress made on the $250 million capital plan that is geared towards building a foundation for the future.”

The $250 million, five-year plan, if completely executed as provided in the financials and on Belco's website, would irrevocably commit Bermuda for future generations to a massive LNG programme, much to the exclusion of renewables that provide only a minimal 6 per cent increase in its strategic plan in the next 20 years. Many technical questions need to be answered now by the RA before they become moot.

Second, in the same Royal Gazette article, Dennis Pimentel, Belco's president, said the utility had submitted its tariff application to the Regulatory Authority in April 2019 to determine the rates customers will pay for electricity in 2020 and 2021. No explanation was provided. Belco's website states in relevant parts:

“If replacement generation, transmission & distribution upgrades and conversion to liquefied natural gas are implemented, and depending upon the rate methodology that the RA chooses to employ, a 2-4 cent per kWh increase is projected to recover the investment made by Belco to bring these projects to fruition.”

However, the LNG conversion facility has yet to be considered, much less approved by the RA since the first IRP under the 2016 Electricity Act has yet to be released.

One can only imagine that potential foreign bidders for Ascendant ownership would like certainty to know the actual rates for the next 30 months when setting their bid price.

How a potential credible bid to purchase Ascendant by foreign persons could even be considered by shareholders or the board before these crucial questions are answered by the RA, or before the first IRP is released, defies common business sense — unless one believes that the RA or the content of the first IRP to be released by it will not significantly change Belco's present plan for use of fossil fuels. In particular, LNG and conversion on island.

We believe that the Government should correct the oversight in the 2016 Electricity Act to make it clear that the first IRP must be released by the independent Regulatory Authority and reviewed in public and by the Government before Ascendant/Belco can even consider any potential bids for a change of ownership or control on the company. Without potential bidders knowing to what extent Bermuda is committed to renewables for the future, there is no way an acceptable price or suitor can be identified or determined. The entire process of even considering indicative bids for the change of ownership has been flawed from the time it was announced at the beginning of 2019.

Sir John Swan, a businessman, was the former Premier of Bermuda between 1982 and 1995, and a former Belco board member. Michael Murphy, a former attorney for American International Group, was the chairman of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers between 1985 and 2005,/i>

Energy future: critics say Belco has not addressed the cost and safety issues of LNG (File photograph by Akil Simmons)
Sir John Swan
Michael Murphy

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Published May 23, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated May 23, 2019 at 8:52 am)

Renewable energy: transparency urgently needed over Belco plans

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