01/04/2012 01:35 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST

Alberta NDP urges end to rising costs and volatile swings in electricity market

EDMONTON - With Alberta consumers poised to pay a record rate for electricity this month, provincial NDP Leader Brian Mason said Wednesday it's time to re-regulate the industry.

"I don't believe that the families and businesses of Alberta should be subjected to a system that cannot produce reliable power at a reliable price and at an affordable price," Mason told a legislature news conference.

"Quite frankly, I don't know why Albertans are willing to put up with this crap."

The Alberta Utilities Commission has announced consumers not locked into long-term contracts will pay a record 15 cents a kilowatt hour for power this month. That's double what was paid in January 2010, and higher than the previous record of 13.5 cents last month.

Alberta has had the biggest growth in power demand in Canada, about 3.5 per cent per year, compared with 2.5 per cent in the rest of the country.

But Mason says the rates are artificially high, adding that government gave power companies the whip hand when it deregulated the industry over 15 years ago.

"It's a system designed by the government working hand and glove with the big power companies to design a system that put all the advantages in the corner of the power producers," he said.

"To depend on the free market to determine whether or not power plants are built or what prices are paid is in my view foolishness."

Mason said the locked-in contracts are no solution because of hidden fees and profit margins.

"Contracts are basically a middleman in many cases, buying electricity on a volatile market, charging you a premium in order to guarantee you a stable rate.

"In the long run you're going to pay more for that price stability than if you simply take the monthly rate."

Mason said an NDP government would re-regulate the system, freeze power prices and make power companies justify any future hikes at full public hearings.

Premier Alison Redford's government is currently reviewing its overall power needs.

Two large north-south transmission lines fast-tracked under former premier Ed Stelmach were put on hold by Redford when she took over the reins of the Conservatives and became premier last October.

An expert panel is reviewing the necessity for the lines and whether the power is needed. Critics say the lines, to be built at taxpayers' expense, would be a massive overbuild, allowing power companies to the sell the excess electricity to the U.S. at a hefty profit.

The panel is to report back with recommendations on Feb. 10.

A third transmission line, running around the eastern edge of Edmonton to serve nearby heavy industry, was approved late last year by Redford's government even though area reeves say there's no proof the extra electricity is needed.