Manitoba Hydro says CEO’s remarks about end of monopoly aren’t hinting at privatization

By | September 11, 2020

Manitoba Hydro says its boss wasn’t talking about privatizing the sale of electricity when she said the Crown corporation’s days as a monopoly are numbered. 

Hydro president and CEO Jay Grewal stoked fears among political parties — and some of her employees — when she said in a Tuesday video message to staff that she wants customers to choose Hydro going forward.

“At this point in time, we’re a monopoly. They don’t have choice,” Grewal said in the video. 

“What we do know is that in the future, they will.” 

The utility and provincial government have repeatedly denied claims they would privatize the Crown corporation, which has been shackled with billions in debt yet still maintains electricity rates lower than many other jurisdictions.

On Friday, Hydro wouldn’t comment on questions raised about the video. Instead, spokesperson Bruce Owen referred to a recording of a Grewal’s speech to a Winnipeg business crowd last September where she mused of a future with fierce competition among companies to manage customers’ energy, through devices like thermostats and vehicles. 

More players in energy market

While many players will enter the energy market, they’ll still be tied to Hydro’s electricity grid, she said.

“For decades there has been only one utility model: large central plants generating electricity, distributed via networks of power lines to customers who value stability and reliability,” Grewal said at the time.

“Utilities were monopolies selling a commodity product, and customers had few choices. But all that is changing.”

Hydro also wrote on YouTube that Grewal’s remarks in the Tuesday video are “not a question of privatization, but of technology driving change.”

Officials at the Crown corporation have repeatedly denied claims it would be privatized. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The Manitoba Liberals want to recall a committee on Crown corporations, which last met in the summer, so Hydro’s top boss can answer for her comments, and other issues.

“When the CEO of Hydro says there’s going to be a point when we’re no longer going to be a monopoly when that is what Hydro is, it is a public monopoly, and it’s owned by all of us — we all need to understand exactly what that’s supposed to mean,” leader Dougald Lamont said.

He also wants to question the decision of Manitoba Hydro Telecom to suspend all business related to new broadband services while a request for proposals looks for a a new third-party manager for its operations. 

Lamont said small internet providers that want to bring high-speed service to remote and northern communities are now in a lurch. 

“It looks to us, and we’re concerned, that they’re just going to carve chunks off [Hydro] and sell those off.”

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he doesn’t find Hydro’s explanation dismissing privatization to be credible since none of that context was in Grewal’s video.

“She said customers in Manitoba’s energy market are going to be confronted with other players in the future. The only plausible explanation for what that could mean is that the government has an intention to break up Manitoba Hydro.”

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