A Low Risk Venture at a High Risk Cost
Posted December 21, 2012
Emera and Nalcor have “sanctioned” the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project and the associated Maritime Link. This allows construction in Labrador to proceed even though Nova Scotia’s Utility and Review Board has not yet approved the Maritime Link.
Emera will be responsible for 20% of the cost of the entire project. It is only coincidental that this is in the same range as the cost of the Maritime Link.
There is a great deal of risk with the Newfoundland part of the project with heavy pressure on wage rates in Labrador. Similar pressures on the island of Newfoundland caused the recently completed Vale hydromet facility to cost far more than originally anticipated.
The good news is that all of that construction risk belongs to Nalcor. The cost to Nova Scotia of the Newfoundland portion of Muskrat falls is now locked in at 20% of $6.2 billion. The remaining piece will be 20% of the Link, currently estimated at $1.3-$1.5 billion and highly likely to stay within that range.
So the current estimate of a $1.52 billion capital cost to Nova Scotian electricity customers should be regarded as quite reliable.
Likewise, there is an agreement between Nalcor and Emera to fix Emera’s share of the operating costs in Newfoundland, so this number will be stable once it is established. In addition customers will be charged Emera’s 20% share of the cost of maintenance, periodic inspections, and insurance on the Maritime link. NSPI will be obligated to take and pay for a fixed amount of electricity at a fixed price whether or not it is needed. In other words Emera’s revenue and expenses are very predictable so the cash flow to pay back the investment will be extremely reliable.
The government of Canada is promising to guarantee 70% of the borrowing. This should provide interest costs close to Canada’s very low borrowing rates, currently 1.8% at ten years growing to 2.4% for 30 years.
The interest on the other 30% will be rather more expensive. In the sanction agreement, Emera is asking for an initial rate of 9.1%. (This will be adjustable for 75% of the future movements in rates, which in the longer term will almost certainly add to the cost.)
Perhaps this is a reasonable rate of return for utilities. But, on this project, is it good value for customers?
The amount of capital needed in addition to the Federal guaranteed loans is $450 million. The Province of Nova Scotia could borrow that amount at a rate of 3%-3.5%, depending on the term. The difference between that cost and Emera’s 9.1% over the 35 years is likely an additional $450 million or more.
Some might argue that borrowing for this project would hurt the province’s overall credit rating, but it hard to see why given the secure cash flow and valuable underlying asset. Nalcor, the Newfoundland crown corporation investing the other 80% in this project with far more risk, currently pays about the same rate as the Province of Nova Scotia on its loans.
Emera has put a great deal of time and talent into crafting a deal in a challenging regulatory and political environment. If in fact the deal is good for Nova Scotia (a separate question to be addressed when we see the final proposal) they deserve to make a good profit for their labours. How much is enough?
Once the Maritime Link project is completed there is very little ongoing risk. What then can one say to the proposition that Emera’s efforts are worth more than $450 million to Nova Scotian businesses and homeowners?
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