Nova Scotia Power: changing standards to match declining performance

Our power company hasn’t met regulator-required customer service and reliability standards for the past four years. Instead of improving its performance, NSP wants to change the standards by which it is judged.

Two guys on a power pole in an ad forNSP
Nova Scotia Power… not exactly as claimed (Facebook).

Nova Scotia Power has failed to meet regulator mandated customer service and reliability standards for four years in a row. One. After. The. Other. Don’t pretend you’re surprised. At that. Or this. Rather than doubling efforts to improve its customer service and reliability, Nova Scotia Power’s deep thinkers have quadrupled down on a campaign to convince the provincial regulator to loosen those standards instead to ones they might actually be able to meet without breaking a sweat or — more importantly — wasting a lot of customer revenue that could be better spent on executive salaries and corporate dividends.

No wonder NSP’s parent company, Emera, rewards its executives so well.

Let’s backtrack, shall we? Nova Scotians have been complaining about NSP’s lack of service, not to mention lack of service standards since… well, at least since Donald Cameron’s blip of a Progressive Conservative government handed the then-public utility back to the private sector in 1992.

The private sector has done exceedingly well by privatization, thank you very much. Emera was ultimately spun up and off to become an unregulated, publicly traded $32.2 billion holding company not only for its now wholly-owned subsidiary, Nova Scotia Power, but also for a series of other acquisitions, including Tampa Electric in Florida and Emera Caribbean with utilities in Barbados, the Bahamas, St. Lucia and Dominica. Not to forget — let’s not forget — its natural gas utilities in New Mexico and Florida, its power plant in Massachusetts, its natural gas pipeline through New Brunswick, its stake in the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, its…

With all that to deal with, it’s easy enough to understand how corporate overseers might have neglected the state of Nova Scotia Power’s customer service in the shuffle for more, more and still more shareholder profit.

Blame the squirrel (Kimber).

Over the years, NSP officials have blamed the company’s failures to keep the lights on on various and sundry causes, including innocent critters like crows, seagulls and electrocuted squirrels, not to neglect my personal favourite, the hard-to-define, hard-to-dispute, hard-to-know-what-the-hell-they’re-talking-about “salty fog.”

It all came to a head in 2014 after the utility left 250,000 of its 400,000 customers in the dark for up to a week after a post-tropical storm named Arthur breezed through the province and managed to make a mess of the power grid.

Customers who tried to call the company to get even a guesstimate of when their electricity might be restored were treated to an unhelpful automated response. “You just wanted to scream into the phone [but] there’s no human to talk to or anything,” one powerless — in more ways than one — customer complained to the CBC at the time. To make matters worse, the utility’s online outage map, which should have shown customers where the outages were… crashed.

Nova Scotia Power’s response: “The winds were higher than predicted.”

So, in 2016, the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board, which is tasked with regulating Nova Scotia Power (though not its parent Emera) established a set of more than a dozen performance and customer service benchmarks it ordered the company to meet. Those included everything from the frequency and length of power interruptions to the percentage of customer bills the company could estimate.

How well has the company done?

Not well at all.

As the CBC’s Paul Withers reported last week, the UARB even fined NSP $250,000 in 2019 after it failed to meet six of the 13 standards, its then-third year in a row of failure.

By June 2021, with no significant improvements reported, an exasperated UARB noted:

It is concerning to the board that NS Power does not seem to recognize that a fundamental outcome anticipated from establishing the performance standards is to produce continuous improvement in reliability, customer service and storm response.

With the 2016 standards up for mandatory review this year, the UARB instructed Nova Scotia Power to sit down with “lawyers representing residential, small business and large customers, but there was no consensus on standards. Instead, Nova Scotia Power submitted its own revisions.”

Oh, that’s… not good news.

As company spokesperson Jackie Foster told the CBC:

The revisions the company has proposed are not intended as a relaxation of the current performance standards but rather were brought forward following several years’ experience with how the current standards operate.

Translation. The company wants the rules relaxed to some stretchy-pants flexible standard so the company can then meet them without spending real money on improvements or maintenance.

Others, including the designated consumer advocate representing NSP’s customers, were expected to weigh in with their responses to the power company’s belt-loosening proposal last week.

Stay tuned.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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  1. Not a surprise, but interesting to read all the facts. Thank you.
    Now, with the solar field in Amherst, customers can apply to participate somehow in that program. Don’t know if this is advantageous to us or to them…doesn’t seem to lessen bill much. Hope our ‘designated consumer advocate’ can learn and share information with the rest of us.

    Reply

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