Motion 507 Carried!
Published on December 3, 2018 by Will McGlynn
Congratulations to the Alberta Federation of Rural Electrification Associations (AFREA) who have been working closely with MLA Kim Schreiner of Red Deer North and their member REA’s to ensure that REA’s can continue to thrive and be viable in the rural Albertan communities they have powered since the 1940’s.
Mrs. Schreiner moved a Private Members Motion on November 26 2018:
“Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to strengthen partnerships with rural electrification associations, REAs, and other co-operatively organized utility associations by developing policies that promote the long-term viability and sustainability of REAs and other co-operatively organized utility associations.”
The following is a transcript of the discussion that followed in the Legislature:
Mrs. Schreiner: Well, thank you, Madam Speaker. It is an honour to bring forward Motion 507 on behalf of the tremendous Albertans who persevered to build and support our great province, the agricultural sector. This motion speaks to the future sustainability of our co-operatively owned associations, which contributed significantly to this province’s success. Fellow members, I am speaking to the rural electrification associations and gas co-ops and the rural Albertans who depend on them to meet the needs of their families and businesses outside of our urban centres.
The dawn of REAs occurred in the 1940s and gas co-ops in 1973. These necessities contributed to the great success of our agricultural sector and are paramount to the competitive advantage that we experience today. We know that Alberta’s oil and gas have driven the economic prosperity in this province and in this country. Alberta’s agriculture industry has also played a significant role in driving that same economic prosperity. There is little doubt that the establishment of REAs was an important factor in that success.
In the late 1940s REAs came about as those in our agricultural sector looked for more efficient ways to run their businesses. With electricity available in urban centres but not in rural communities, people took initiative to meet their own needs. Within a decade of the introduction of the rural electrification program almost 90 per cent of Albertan farmers took advantage of this. Like all business owners, farmers look to maximize efficiency, and bringing electricity to rural Alberta helped them do just that. REAs were established as not-for-profit co-operatives of at least five members who jointly owned the assets, equipment, and other technology. Governed by the Rural Utilities Act, they distributed electricity from the Alberta interconnected electric system to each member.
Within Canada, REAs are unique to Alberta and were originally commissioned as a way to provide rural Albertans with electricity to meet the personal and business needs of the agricultural sector. The early models of REAs were differentiated as self-operated REAs, which manage the co-op and conduct their own maintenance, and operating REAs, which manage the co-op but hire contractors to maintain and service their lines and equipment. Examples of both are still around today but in a reduced form as compared to the initial REAs of 70 years ago. The two distinct models illustrate the unique character of REAs and the unique needs they meet, but both were built on a foundation of collaboration. Working together, rural Albertans recognized the value of investor-owned utilities in some cases which were able to operate according to the needs of rural Albertans.
We cannot dismiss the needs of those who supported this innovation. Their vision was the foundation of an advantage in the competitive farming industry, and our rural partners stepped up to the challenge. Without efficient electricity farm families faced more hazards and found it more difficult to maintain a livelihood. With REAs, farmers could eliminate the dawn-to-dusk limitations that previously dictated when they could work, which also helped them to harness help from their families, which are the very fabric of Albertan society.
Madam Speaker and fellow members, I am bringing forth this motion for many different reasons. Our REAs are vulnerable as a result of historic regulations and agreements that remain static and impede their growth. Alberta has changed significantly since the late 1940s, when REAs were established. Rural Alberta has shifted, and as a result many areas that were once farmland have evolved into urbanized areas. This has diminished the ability of REAs to serve their mandate due to regulatory barriers.
The Rural Utilities Act, which governs REAs, was enacted to support a growing province and the need to help agricultural producers develop and enhance their operations. Community-based REAs evolved in response to community-based needs, but there are many changing dynamics that have affected our rural regions and our REAs’ ability to maintain their market share in rural Alberta: Alberta’s population growth since the inception of REAs, increased urbanization of Alberta’s population, changing trends in the farming industry such as many farms getting larger and others dissolving, the reduced number of REAs as a result of amalgamation or sale to investor-owned utilities, and changes in technology.
While change is inevitable over the course of 70-plus years, it’s important to remember where we have come from. REAs have served to promote the growth, viability, and sustainability of our agricultural sectors. Like investor-owned utilities, REAs have evolved to serve the growing needs of our province. Right now over 40,000 Albertans belong to the 32 REAs that still exist, down from the peak of 381 active REAs. It is crucial to consult with stakeholders about how we can best support the future sustainability of these important institutions.
It was my pleasure to meet with the Alberta Federation of Rural Electrification Associations, Equs, and Fortis. Our conversations helped form the basis of this motion. This motion seeks to open the dialogue about the changes taking place in rural Alberta and their impact on REAs. We cannot influence Albertans’ choices on where to live, but we can seek to preserve REAs and the services they provide to the 40,000 rural Albertans who rely on them. The result of shifting populations is that there are areas where both REAs and investor-owned utilities operate, and REAs are losing market share.
Madam Speaker and fellow members, I would also be remiss if I did not mention the many community organizations that REAs support. Many choose to reinvest in the communities they co-operatively serve. This is true of many investor-owned utilities as well, and we can conclude that both types of operations can bring value to their communities.
In the case of REAs, I have heard from many groups about the positive impacts that REAs have had. For example, Wettstein Safety Strategies and co-op concurs:
REAs are an integral part of rural Alberta and contribute meaningfully as both community builders and electricity [and other resource] distributors. These member-owned cooperatives have a long and proud history of distributing electricity to our communities and investing in organizations such as ours.
Another example is the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, who said:
We have been fortunate to find a strong partner in AFREA. Their generous support of over $300,000 for the past 12 years has allowed us to support individuals affected by MS in more than 30 rural communities across Alberta.
The different needs of REAs vary depending on a number of factors. Agreements made at the outset of the REAs served to meet the rudimentary needs of early REAs but may or may not serve present or future needs. Nominal changes in government may or may not balance the changes that have taken place over the last 70-plus years. That’s why it’s so important that we begin this dialogue.
I welcome the opportunity to further debate our support for policy development that will encourage stability, viability, and sustainability of these important co-operatively owned associations. Thank you.
The Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Calgary-Foothills.
Mr. Panda: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Red Deer-North for bringing in this motion and for also inviting the representatives of the industry. I support the spirit of this motion, but when we talk about the viability and sustainability of REAs, I want to go a little bit into those details.
As you all know, Albertans, particularly rural Albertans, know that the UCP has got their back. [interjections] Yeah, yeah. You can laugh. We will see. I wouldn’t be surprised, Madam Speaker, through you – we’ll see next time. You won’t believe how many rural seats the UCP will be honoured to represent. This is coming from a Calgary guy who travelled in all those rural ridings, including the one of the member on the other side who is laughing. I was in her riding, too. And I was in your riding, too, Madam Speaker, if you remember. It was an honour.
But I want to bring in how we got here. This NDP government and caucus just doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to meddling with Alberta’s electrical system. The whole afternoon today we talked about electricity. First, we had the coal-fired generation phase-outs, both the federally mandated one and the end-of-life mandated one, and then the NDP imposed a provincial one on assets that were not clear end-of-life. So a real waste of capital, Madam Speaker. Then we had the power purchase agreement debacle, the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost the taxpayers to bail out the billions of dollars the Balancing Pool lost, and then the capacity market debate because the generators needed money to replace the old coal plants with natural gas based and keep prices stable.
Thankfully, the new wind generators under the renewable electricity program are not getting the capacity payments because that would make the capacity market a simple political sop to the NDP’s world travellers. And now we find out that the Balancing Pool was behaving in a nonconsultative, noncommercial manner and has cost the privately owned generators an estimated $2.9 billion. Is the Crown about to be sued for that amount? I know that I would. All of these scandals were around the generation component of the electricity system.
The NDP never touched transmission, and the NDP never touched distribution until now. The motion before us reads:
Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to strengthen partnerships with rural electrification associations . . . and other co-operatively organized utility associations by developing policies that promote the long-term viability and sustainability of REAs and other co-operatively organized utility associations.
At one point there were nearly 400 REAs in Alberta. As of November 2016 there were 31 REAs grouped across 11 REA districts, comprised of 40,838 customers. On average, each REA has 1,317 customers. The largest REA is Equs, spanning 26 municipal districts and counties, with over 11,550 members and 28 per cent of REA customers from Barrhead to the U.S. border.
REAs are surrounded by ATCO Electric and FortisAlberta Inc. as competitive investor-owned utility distributors and electrical equipment owners. REAs are locked in the market share turf war with private companies, and it seems that the market is not set out with level playing fields for the REAs. By not having a level playing field, the REAs are out there calling for a monopoly on distribution to customers who consume less than 500 kilowatts per annum and want to compete for customers that consume more than 500 kVa. They also want a monopoly on their service area.
I’m a capitalist, Madam Speaker, and that makes me believe in competition. Can an update be made to enable the REAs better competition powers? I think the case can be made. After all, if someone can leave Equs for Fortis, then someone should be able to leave Fortis for Equs. But this is the NDP that we are talking about here, and knowing the NDP, they will try and damage anyone that makes money. If the NDP can harm power generators like they have, then the NDP can harm power distributors like REAs, too.
We all know that the NDP have no leg to stand on when it comes to the electricity file. Witness the evidence of holding on to the power purchase agreements longer than needed. When the companies moved to cancel the PPAs because they had been made more unprofitable by the NDP, the Balancing Pool held on so that the NDP could try and sue itself. Witness the Balancing Pool treating those PPA assets in a noncommercial manner, losing $750 million and taking out loans from the government of Alberta, and witness the Balancing Pool losing $745 million from January 2017 to September 2018 and costing other generators $2.9 billion over the same period of time.
We know that the NDP have been manipulating electricity prices through the 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour rate cap, the PPA cancellation delay, the Balancing Pool’s noncommercial behaviour, the numerous subsidies and programs to backstop wind and solar, their indifference to geothermal, and the early closure and phase-out of practically brand new, high-efficiency coal-fired generation plants at Genesee and Keephills, which, I will add, will create a fly ash shortage for the construction sector for anything built with concrete. With the NDP’s record on electricity, how can we trust the NDP to resolve the issues with the REAs?
I want to back the truck up here and talk about the 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour. The REAs cannot find the efficiencies to make that 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour price for their members. They have to charge a higher rate. Why? Membership. They do not have enough members to enable large electricity bulk buys to pass those savings on to their members. REAs can charge a billing rate that is in excess of the rate cap of 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour. This is distinct from the large regulated rate option, RRO, suppliers, who are capped at 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour.
When asked about this at the budget estimates in April 2018, Assistant Deputy Minister David James explained that the reference rate was created using the RRO prices of EPCOR, Enmax, and Direct Energy and adding 10 per cent. In that way, the REAs can be reimbursed for prices above the 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour. This creates a situation in that the REA members may switch to another distributor in order to get a lower rate and affect the long-term viability of the REAs.
Madam Speaker, while the NDP put forward nice motions and promises to REAs, the NDP government has no credibility on the electricity file. I thank you for the opportunity to address Motion 507.
The Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Sherwood Park.
Ms McKitrick: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I always find it entertaining when the Member for Calgary-Foothills talks about REAs. I’m hoping that maybe after I finish speaking, he’ll understand some of the background of REAs. I also have to ask the question: why was it that under the previous government nothing was done to support the REAs and enable them to be more viable and to resolve some of the issues that came about because of some of the changes in the urban and rural divide? That’s my first question.
Madam Speaker, my question today is really: how many MLAs in this Assembly have ever pondered the uniqueness of the rural electrification associations? Do you all know that Alberta is the only province that has them? This is a very unique thing that was created by the farmers of Alberta. Our rural electrification co-ops, that I’m going to just call the REAs, and our gas co-ops are only present in Alberta, and I think it really speaks to the uniqueness of our agriculture and the tendency of our agriculture sector to realize that they needed to meet their electricity demands, and because the government wasn’t interested in helping them access electricity, they all got together to form these REAs.
Another question that I think we need to ponder is how close our farmers in the 1940s came to not having electricity. It was only because these farmers got together and invested their own funds that our farmers got access to electricity. I think we often talk about the investor-owned utilities, the IO utilities, and the fact that we think they’re the greatest thing, but I want to reinforce the fact that when the farmers needed electricity, those big companies did not want to support the farmers because it was going to be too expensive. This is why the farmers followed what had happened in other provinces and formed the co-operatives, which we now call REAs.
It’s also interesting to note that the farmers in Alberta didn’t only form REAs and water co-ops and later on gas co-ops. By forming REAs, they joined the growing diversity of co-operatives formed by rural Canadians, like mutual insurance. Most farmers in the past were insured through a mutual. A mutual is a co-operative; it’s just a different name. Most of the mutuals have now been demutualized.
There are the agricultural stores like the UFA, which is one of our biggest co-operatives, which has had such importance in the history of Alberta. There are the water co-operatives, the gas co-ops, and the credit unions. Without these co-operatives, which the REAs are a part of, our rural economy, our farmers and so on would have been really challenged to provide as much to the economy of Alberta as they have. They’re really the backbone of our economy, and they maintain to be the backbone of our economy.
I just read an interesting report around REAs, that I’ll be happy to table tomorrow. It’s called the Toma and Bouma report. This report is kind of interesting because it demonstrates that under the former PC government, that many of the members are very closely linked to, there were opportunities then to do something about the REAs, to help them and support them, and nothing was done. I’ll be happy to table it in the future.
I also think it’s quite interesting to find out the history of co-operatives. Again, I’m wondering how many knew that the co-operatives sector in Alberta was started by two Catholic priests. Did you know that Moses Coady and Jim Tompkins out of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, were the two Catholic priests who, following a Catholic social teaching, started the co-operatives? If you know anything about rural Alberta, you would also realize that a lot of the farmers who were very involved in the co-operatives sector were from the Dutch Reform church. So our co-operatives movement has strong Christian roots, initially from the Catholic movement and, especially in Alberta, from the Christian Reformed church. These priests were interested in forming co-operatives because they realized that there were a lot of inequalities among the farmers and the fishers, and they needed to find a way to make sure that people had access to a good price.
I just wanted to quote a little bit from that time. The movement advocated reforms that included forming co-operatives because on the social issues it really was a need to make sure that people had access to good wages and all the tools that they needed to be able to, in this case, farm or be able to sell their product. Those two priests, Moses Coady and Jim Tompkins – and maybe some of you have seen the Coady institute, which is still very important in Antigonish and throughout the world – believed implicitly in the power of people to accomplish anything if they could but awaken to the opportunities of the moment and use their collective energies in a determined effort to improve their status.
One of the things that I appreciate so much about the REAs, not only their histories but up to the present day, is that this is what the REAs are all about. People have collectively put their efforts, they collectively put their money to make sure that they had access to electricity, that they could build the poles and connect them to the main grid and work together to do this. This is why I think it’s very important for all of us to support the REAs to ensure their viability.
The other part that really interests me about the REAs is: did you all know that the REAs have been really interested in renewable energy? They have been involved in various committees and various efforts to explore the way that as REAs, because they have the infrastructure, they have the administration, and they have the members, they could work with our government to form a community renewable energy project or to support farmers installing solar energy or wind energy. They really understand that the face of energy is changing in Alberta, that they can participate in that and use their power of membership and locally made decisions to work with the government to be involved in renewable energy.
One of the things I really appreciate about the REAs and the gas co-ops and the UFA and other institutions that the farmers have started in Alberta is that by forming a co-operative, as members they can make decisions over the goods they produce or, in this case, over the way that electricity is going to be distributed and how their organization is going to be covered. I think it’s very, very powerful.
Myself, I can’t belong to an REA because I live in an urban centre, but I actually belong to an electricity and gas co-operative that is modelled after the REAs, and my electricity and my gas are distributed by this co-operative. It’s called ACE co-operative, and it’s based on the same principles, where I as a member share all the risk and I share all the benefits and I have the ability to make decisions.
I think that while we look at the REAs as being rural – and in my own municipality of Strathcona county we have an REA in our rural areas – it’s important to understand their viability and the importance they have in ensuring that our farmers have electricity but also the importance they have when looking towards the future. What can be for them in the future in terms of rural energy or other aspects of the electricity system is very important. It’s applicable to everyone in this House.
I wanted also to thank the members of the AFREAs.
The Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Little Bow.
Mr. Schneider: Thank you, Madam Speaker. Once again, it’s always a pleasure to rise in this Legislature to discuss legislation that’s important to all Albertans, and today is certainly no exception as we discuss private member’s Motion 507, which reads:
Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to strengthen partnerships with rural electrification associations . . . and other co-operatively organized utility associations by developing policies that promote the long-term viability and sustainability of REAs and other co-operatively organized utility associations.
Now, that is a mouthful.
Well, Madam Speaker, I have to confess that I’m not quite sure where the motion would come from. I’m not of any understanding in the last 30 minutes that I have sat and listened, any understanding where the REAs in Alberta are necessarily concerned about their partnerships with the government of Alberta. I certainly didn’t hear any outstanding reasons from the member that introduced the motion nor the last speaker.
It could be, to me anyways, that the concern stems from the fact that Alberta has had no substantive updates or changes to legislation impacting REA operation in over 40 years. That’s 40 years. Now, that’s 40, for those at home. That’s pretty significant if you ask me, Madam Speaker. So it would appear that as a result of this, this stale state of legislation, Alberta’s REAs have been unable to expand market share or attract new membership in any substantial way. Because of this, almost a third of REAs that were around in 2012 have since been sold to investor-owned utilities.
I’ve certainly been wrong before, and I suspect I’ll be wrong many times yet before my time here is done, but that certainly would make me think that REAs could be in a bit of trouble for their sustainability; in fact, that the trends seem to be that REAs could end up being absorbed by these investor-owned utilities in a decade or so. That should give us, especially those in rural Alberta, a slight cause for concern.
What I know for sure is that historically rural electrification in Alberta started in the 1940s. At that time in Alberta’s history utilities first began providing electric service to farms that happened to be close to the transmission lines, transmission lines that were carrying power to larger urban centres. That was working out just fine for the farm sites that happened to be located in the right spot, but obviously there were farms located far from existing lines that energy travelled through. A quick determination was that the costs associated with the possibility of connecting a delivery system for those farms made serving them uneconomic.
In the late ’40s the Alberta government created legislation that allowed in part the creation of farmer-owned, not-for-profit rural electrification associations. The legislation also provided for loans to the REAs that were guaranteed by the government so that the associations could finance the capital costs of constructing a distribution network. After construction the associations could take ownership of and also operate the lines, transformers, and substations. Over the years since these basically made-in-Alberta, unique creations were formed and up and running, certainly, government was involved with varying subsidies.
Now, my grandfather left Scotland by ship and landed on the east coast of Canada in 1904. He worked his way across Canada on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He ended up in the western town of Stavely in 1908 and paid $10 for a quarter section of land some 50 or 60 miles to the east of where he was standing, land he’d never seen, but he was so happy to be in a country where land was available that it didn’t matter. He made his way to the Armada area, which is east of Vulcan. I’m not sure how he got out there. He was Scottish. He worked for four years to get his way out west, so I suppose it’s possible that he had enough wherewithal to purchase a horse to ride, possibly a workhorse. At any rate, no pun intended, he got to his land, he proved up, and he was given the adjoining quarter section. He was well on his way to becoming a successful homesteader in early Alberta. He met my grandmother sometime before 1920, and they married. Now, she was English. So they together were, shall we say, frugal but not so frugal that they lacked of the conveniences in life that were becoming available.
For power on their farm, that was certainly a long way from the future distribution lines, they had a windmill that charged batteries, and I remember the generator that they had purchased sometime after they were part of rural electrification to provide power when the lines were down. When power went out in those early days, it was sometimes out for days or weeks at a time. A heavy snowstorm could take down lines in a huge area. Wind could take lines down. It was the infancy of electricity in rural areas in Alberta.
At any rate, my grandfather and his two sons were part of rural electrification at the time of the area. They helped to install power poles, string wire to areas within their specific geographic boundaries. So while I’ve never been part of an REA on my own operation, I have always felt that I have a small connection to the history of rural electrification.
But to the present, Madam Speaker, what we have here is a group of REAs basically at a sort of crossroads in their existence. As of November 2016 there were 31 REAs grouped across 11 REA districts, comprising some 40,838 customers. Now, that gives us on average 1,317 customers per REA. The largest REA is Equs, spanning 26 municipal districts and counties, with over 11,550 members. That number represents 28 per cent of REA customers in Alberta, from Barrhead to the U.S. border.
Now, to me, where the trouble lies is that these REAs are pretty much surrounded by ATCO Electric and FortisAlberta Inc. as competitor distributors and electrical equipment owners. In the fall of 2012 FortisAlberta interpreted some rulings to mean that customers could choose to not be members of an REA and therefore would become customers of FortisAlberta by default, regardless of the usage of the electric service. REAs are of the opinion that this cuts two ways: if a customer can choose to not be a member of the REA, they can also choose not to be a customer of FortisAlberta and be a member of an REA. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
As a result, the Alberta Federation of Rural Electrification Associations has been advocating for legislative change to support the sustainability and, hence, the membership base of REAs. Compounding the issue was a critical development that occurred this last summer. What happened was that the Alberta Utilities Commission decided that Fortis should have exclusive rights to distribute electricity in the lands annexed by four municipalities, municipalities with which they already had a pre-existing franchise agreement. What this meant was that the four REAs affected by these annexations could not coexist with Fortis within these lands and compete for distribution. This only further weakened the province’s REAs.
I guess the purpose of this motion is to make sure that REAs continue to exist and remain a viable option to rural customers. Now, I can certainly get behind that, Madam Speaker. As you are well aware, the people in this party that’s represented by this caucus are big believers in open and fair competition. Options are always good. I just find it odd that the government is championing this, when it wasn’t too long ago, under another bill – I believe it was during Bill 13 debate for a capacity electricity market – that the NDP put some amendments forward into the Gas Utilities Act giving the Alberta Utilities Commission the power to order a specified penalty against a retailer like the Northern Lights Gas Co-op in Mackenzie county for failing to deliver natural gas. As we’ve brought up several times in this House, for two winters now that gas co-op has had trouble maintaining line pressure, and it will take them probably close to a decade to raise the capital needed to effect repairs and address their rapid growth, while the NDP solution was to set the AUC on them and penalize them for it. Not exactly standing up for Albertans.
The bottom line is that these REAs could play a much larger role as a trusted partner with the provincial government in economic development activities if government would simply allow them to. But until that day we will have to treat this motion as an important step in the right direction. So I will be supporting this motion.
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
The Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville.
Ms Littlewood: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. It’s my pleasure to be able to rise in the House and speak to the motion from the Member for Red Deer-North asking the government to strengthen partnerships with rural electrification associations, otherwise known as REAs, and how we can look at promoting the long-term viability and sustainability of REAs and, of course, other co-operatively organized utility associations because, as the discussion today focuses on REAs, we have other co-operatives in rural Alberta that are quite important. In my community especially we have a water co-op, we have gas co-ops, we have UFA: companies that are able to do an incredible job of keeping money local, keeping jobs local, keeping investment local, and keeping decision-making local, which is, of course, the most important thing.
In my own constituency of Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville I have the pleasure of supporting and representing a few different REAs. We have the Lakeland REA, we have the Battle River co-op, and we also have the Zawale REA. When I have been in conversations with people from my neighbourhood as well as the executive of the AFREA, I’ve been learning a lot about what those services are that are delivered and how it is that they came to exist in the first place. As was elaborated on a bit earlier by our MLA for Sherwood Park, it was neighbours and farmers coming together in the absence of government and business.
I was on my way to a Lakeland AGM the other day, and I was thinking about how to draw some sort of parallel with my own life because I do live in an investor-owned, utility-served area. One night I was on my way home from Tofield, from visiting with the high school awards recipients, and I was headed north on highway 34. I came upon a deer, and the deer did not survive. I took it on with my truck. By the time I turned around, it was certainly in the middle of the road, no longer with the life that I had come upon it with, the point being that I came upon it and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew that I was going to call Fish and Game and call AMA and try and figure out how to take care of my truck and the carcass.
I was thankful because I threw on my four-ways and a neighbour came upon me and the accident. They pulled up beside me, and they had actually recognized me from the high school awards because one of their children was a recipient. The husband was able to offer his assistance. Thankfully, the deer was in one piece, so he was able to help and take the deer off the road by its legs. That was something that I was thankful to have happened because that was a need that I had, to make sure that the area was safe and that my truck was okay. It took neighbours. You know, with probably a three-hour wait for fish and wildlife and a three-hour wait for AMA, in the absence of government and business it was neighbours and farmers coming together. It was actually a farm owner from just a couple of miles over that helped me out in that moment.
That is how the entire province was electrified. It’s incredible that people were able to come together for a very important cause. They knew that there was a need with developing agriculture to be able to serve that industry as it grew, and really that’s a major reason why we have a strong farming industry today.
There have been quite a lot of changes that have taken course over the last number of years, including urban drift that has come out of rural areas, amalgamated farms, subdividing into acreages. All of these things start to pose a challenge when it comes to having enough customers to be able to pay for the things that keep the REA sustainable and viable and thriving. That, along with some changes in technology and those issues, is why we’re talking about this today.
It’s why the AFREA and the REAs that I represent came and met with me basically as soon as I was elected. They knew that we shared values of co-operatives and having local, democratic decision-making of member-owned businesses. They have been asking the government to undertake looking for ways to help them help themselves. They’re not asking for a handout; they’re just asking for someone to be a good partner.
It has been great to see some of the announcements that have come lately, including the intermingled electricity study that Alberta Forestry and Alberta Energy have been undertaking in order to analyze pricing, financial information, how we can promote economic growth. We hope to see the results of the study soon. As I do understand, it should be coming in short order. That will give us some of those answers.
In the meantime the ability of our REAs to be great partners in community generation with renewables is absolutely incredible. The announcement at the rural municipalities association convention last week that announced $200 million in community generation would help groups that can take this on as a project and a means of economic means, including ag societies, schools, community groups, neighbours, and co-operatives. We know that REAs want to be a partner in doing this. That $200 million is backed by the price that we are applying to carbon as part of the climate leadership plan, so we need to have those funds available to do good work, to reduce greenhouse gases but also diversify local economies in rural Alberta, because the more that we can do that, the more that rural Alberta becomes more sustainable and viable into the future. I know that that’s what everyone agrees with.
Going forward, I know that there are more opportunities that REAs are discussing, and I certainly hope to hear more in the conversations of possibly Internet and broadband development in rural areas that could be delivered by REAs because that is the way of the future. That is how we are going to hang onto students that need to be able to do their studies, businesses that need to be connected with a global market, and emergency services. So I’m definitely hoping to hear some more of that work that might be going on right now so that we can potentially collaborate on those solutions because we are working towards the same ends on that. Alberta has been trying to get better Internet service in all of our communities in rural Alberta, especially northern Alberta and indigenous communities, for years. If these groups were able to electrify the entire province, I don’t see why they can’t help connect it as well.
I’ll end my remarks there, Madam Speaker. I just want to thank all of the work that the MLA for Red Deer-North has done and my fellow MLAs, both urban and rural, that are supporting REAs and our co-operative values moving forward.
Thank you so much.
The Deputy Speaker: Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.
Mr. Nixon: Well, thank you, Madam Speaker. There is little time and much to talk about today, so I will try to be as efficient as possible. I do want to start off by just quickly responding to some comments from the member for Vegreville-Viking.
Ms Littlewood: Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville.
Mr. Nixon: Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville: that neck of the woods out there in northeastern Alberta.
Just to be really clear, this REA member is looking forward to the carbon tax being gone, for sure. This REA member also has some questions about why we are only seeing a motion in this Assembly. First of all, I want to start off by thanking the member from Red Deer. I think she has good intentions with this motion. She’s brought it here in good faith, and I believe – in fact, I know, Madam Speaker, that she’s spent considerable time interacting with REAs, including REAs that I represent. I think she is doing the best she can as a private member of this Assembly to bring this important issue to the floor of this Assembly.
But, Madam Speaker, you and I both know that this motion is toothless. I will certainly support it, and this side of the House will certainly support it, but this motion does nothing to help REAs with the problems that they’re facing. This motion assumes that the government will act on it. I can’t remember the last time that this government acted on a private member’s motion in this place, which begs the question: why is there no bill before this House? Now, the hon. member, who obviously thinks this issue is important – and good for her – probably only drew a private member’s motion, and she probably was only able to use that as her mechanism to bring that to the Chamber, to bring this issue to the forefront. Good for her.
This government has been in power for almost four years. How come that agriculture minister right there has not stood up in this Chamber and brought forward a piece of legislation to deal with it? As the hon. member from Vulcan – Little Bow: that’s where he’s from; Vulcan is there, though – brought up, this is decades-old legislation, and this government has refused to address it, so it’s a little bit rich for government members to stand in this Chamber and then say that they’re being able to champion this issue on behalf of REAs when they know as well as I know that this motion will do little to move forward REA issues.
In addition, talking about co-operative issues, this side of the House has some concerns. This government, back under the Bill 13 debate on the electricity capacity market – at that time we found out, as you know, Madam Speaker, that the NDP put forward some amendments to the Gas Utilities Act where the AUC can order a specified penalty against a retailer like Northern Lights Gas Co-op in Mackenzie county for failing to deliver natural gas. Now, for two winters that gas co-op has had trouble maintaining line pressure, and it will take them 10 years to raise the money needed to effect repairs and address the rapid growth in the communities, and the NDP dared to just send the AUC on them and penalize them for it.
This government is not concerned. There are some private members within this government that are concerned about dealing with issues like REAs, but this government as a whole is not concerned about it at all because, again, like so many things that they do in this Chamber, their lack of action shows more than their words.
It’s okay to stand in this Chamber and give the history of REAs, which is very important. I don’t have enough time to deal with that before we hit the clock to have to vote on this. It’s important. Without REAs we wouldn’t have this province, particularly the areas that most of us on this side of the House represent. The history of REAs is fascinating. I think it’s one of the great stories of our province, and I think REAs have a role, certainly, to play in the future of our province. I actually represent the largest constituency as far as REA members considered numerically in the province. REAs have a role to play.
When members want to stand in this Chamber and act like they’re going to champion this issue but then sit with a government that refuses to address it at all – I know for sure that REAs have come and met with the government for several years, trying to get the agriculture minister to move on this, and again no action from this government. We see it on so many other issues. The examples are long, Madam Speaker, as you well know, everything from pipelines, carbon tax, all those types of issues, but on this specifically, again no action. The question has to become for the private members on this side why the government won’t truly take action.
Again I want to stress in the little time that I have left – I’m watching the clock because I know you’ll call it – that the hon. member from Red Deer has come here in good faith, which is why I will support this. I think that she has taken a considerable amount of time on this motion, and I completely support it – but I do want to outline that it has no ability to make the government act, and the government has refused to act so far. So the members on that side who are attempting to champion issues of REAs: the most important thing they could do is talk to their cabinet, talk to the members of the government. The private member from Red Deer is not a member of the government. I recognize that, but she is a member of the party that is the governing party at this moment. She could talk to cabinet to find out why they won’t address this issue once and for all, bring forward some legislation to be able to deal with it.
You know, when I first heard about this from my REAs, from the Rocky REA, they thought this was a bill. They thought this was going to be something that was significant to move this forward. When I explained to them what a private member’s motion was, I think they were probably disappointed. They were still excited that their issue was being discussed – that’s important – but they really thought something would happen about it.
I think it’s important to be clear that the NDP government went out of their way over and over not to address the REA issue and instead has buried it to make some of their private members be quiet or to appease them in the backbench instead of taking action on it, and those private members should start to hold their government accountable for that action.
The Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Red Deer-North to close debate.
Mrs. Schreiner: Thank you again, Madam Speaker. We can all agree that our REAs have invaluably contributed to the success and prosperity of our agricultural sector and were key in the progress that our farming industry was in great need of. It is important to note as well that this innovation also reinforced the ability of rural families to enjoy time that may not have been available without innovation and efficiency. I am proud to know that we are willing to acknowledge the historical contributions that REAs have brought to our agricultural industry and continue to provide today. I appreciate the thoughtful debate and discussion from colleagues here in the Legislature.
Our discussion today brings realization of our pledge to support those who put food on our tables. We are all committed to supporting rural Albertans and our agriculture producers. We are committed to finding solutions to support our rural electrification associations and all co-operatively owned associations as they aim to serve Albertans, even if we don’t always agree on the exact way to provide that support.
The dynamics within rural electrification models suggest that thoughtfulness is required when looking to support the future of their sustainability. There is much capacity within the REAs themselves, and I am glad to know that governance training has been offered and provided to those boards that wish to maximize and make efficient use of the resources within their means. It is this kind of dialogue that will lead to the effective policy direction that will provide the best outcomes for REAs and the rural Albertans who rely on them.
I just want to emphasize once again the kinds of changes taking place in rural Alberta that are challenging our REAs: Alberta’s population growth since the inception of REAs, the increased urbanization of Alberta’s population, the changing trends in the farming industry such as many farms getting larger and others dissolving, the reduced number of REAs as a result of amalgamation or sale to investor-owned utilities, and changes in technology.
While there have been in the past hundreds of REAs all across the province, that number has since dwindled to 32, but those 32 REAs provide an invaluable service to over 40,000 rural Albertans who depend on them. As I mentioned earlier, there are many not-for-profit organizations that benefit from this province’s REAs as well. These co-operatively organized utility providers reflect some of the very best about what it means to be Albertan. As Albertans we work together to overcome the challenges our environment has presented to us, and we give back, supporting those among us who need it.
Before we vote on this motion, I want to once again encourage all of my colleagues to support it. We need to develop policy that will encourage stability, viability, and sustainability for these important co-operatively owned associations. They are part of our history, and it would be a shame to lose them. We must make them part of our future.
Cortes-Vargas: Madam Speaker, just seeing the time, I ask that we make the bells for this motion to be one minute.
[Unanimous consent granted]
The Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Red Deer-North has proposed Motion 507.
[Motion Other than Government Motion 507 carried]