03/27/2017 17:04 EDT | Updated 03/28/2018 01:12 EDT

NB Power's business model changes as customers try other energy sources

NB Power's days of producing and delivering electricity as it does now are numbered.

The utility's business model is already changing as customers start to produce their own power through rooftop solar panels, a Moncton conference heard Monday.

This means NB Power will sell less electricity, Mike Bourque, director of resource planning at NB Power, said between sessions at the event hosted by the New Brunswick Environmental Network.

The first day of the Smart Shift Summit focused on "realising opportunities" related to climate change. This comes less than a week after the federal Liberals released their second budget, allocating money for the clean technology sector.

Meanwhile, the New Brunswick government has yet to announce a promised "made in New Brunswick" carbon pricing scheme — a subject raised during an opportunities panel Bourque participated in on Monday morning.

Following that, he explained to CBC that NB Power's situation is similar to the one NBTel, as it was then known, faced in the 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of the internet. Suddenly, the company's customers had a new method of communicating across long distances.

Something similar is happening now in the electricity industry, as customers move to technologies such as solar panels and batteries.

"We need to figure out what that new business model will be for us in the future," Bourque said. "We'll continue to sell electricity as a commodity, but we'll need to attach a new business model to allow customers to build those new options."

The director said the new model will require NB Power to establish a new partnership with its customers and potentially strategic partnerships with private companies.

Not a 'quick fix'

Describing an evolving model, Bourque said he doesn't expect a quick change, but expects more people to adopt technologies over the next five years as they decrease in price.

"Once that will happen, we'll see very high penetration," Bourque said.

In New Brunswick, change is occurring very slowly, he said, and only a few NB Power customers are generating power using rooftop solar panels and operating on a net metering policy.

In the meantime, NB Power is starting to build smart grid infrastructure, as part of a 10-year partnership with Siemens. This will allow NB Power customers to plug their systems into a modernized public electricity grid.

Hearing from you

NB Power is asking customers for their input on its Integrated Resources Plan, a 25-year plan that considers the utility's current electricity system, how the system will change and how NB Power can respond to changes such as increasing loads and retiring assets.

"The discussion will be with [the] public, because it's a different conversation now that we're having with customers, because they will play a part in developing this new plan going forward, because they will actually provide new options available to NB Power, which will reduce the need for building a large generator in the future," Bourque said.

The utility will hold a public meeting on April 26 at a still-undecided place.

NB Power is also inviting its customers to fill out an online survey about their priorities and thoughts on where the utility should go.