Clear Definitions for Energizing Discussions

In the debate surrounding the upcoming Hydro-Québec bill, many opinions are circulating. Unfortunately, several concepts are mixed up, which confuses the discussion. Here are some definitions to enlighten readers.

  • Monopoly: The transmission and the distribution of electricity are natural monopolies. This means that there is “naturally” a single supplier that emerges in each location (or corridor for transmission). Imagine if several suppliers wanted to have poles along our streets! It doesn’t happen. However, there are already 11 electricity distributors with a monopoly in Québec: Hydro-Québec, 9 cities and a cooperative. Hydro-Québec is not the only distributor. For transmission, some companies have lines, such as Rio Tinto, and some lines have been built in partnership. Once again, Hydro-Québec is not alone.
  • Monopoly (bis): The production of electricity and the retail sale of electricity are not natural monopolies. In several regions, such as the European Union, several producers compete and sell electricity on an open market. Electricity retailers buy and sell this energy to consumers proposing various plans, much like we see in the telecommunications industry. Electricity is delivered from producers to consumers using the natural monopoly of transmission and distribution companies. This 4-stage structure (production-transmission-distribution-retail) is common, and Québec’s vertically integrated structure is more the exception than the rule.
  • Price regulation: Monopoly means price regulation. Transmission and distribution prices are always regulated to ensure a fair return on prudent investments; sometimes performance incentives (reliability, costs) are imposed, as in Great Britain or Alberta. Where production and retail are competitive, regulation can be light, mainly to ensure that prices and conditions of service are fair, and to ensure that competition works for the benefit of consumers. Also, it should be noted that prices must be regulated even for a state monopoly.
  • Nationalization (or privatization): The nationalization of electricity production and delivery in Québec, a legacy of the Quiet Revolution, is not seriously questioned: no one will want to sell Hydro-Québec, as Hydro One was in Ontario a few years ago. The nationalization of private electricity companies has made it possible to accelerate electrification (helping the trade balance), to develop the industrial sector of Québec’s economy (electrical equipment and aluminum), and to develop the service sector (consulting engineering and computer science). However, nationalization does not mean that the private sector has no role to play or that Hydro-Québec should be the sole producer. 

Beyond words, the important thing is to set the right goals and use the levers at our disposal to achieve them, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each model.