New Zealand electricity prices: so high and still rising

Posted 9 May 2019 by David Spratt

When we look at New Zealand electricity prices, it is important to consider lines companies in the equation.

The lines company or electricity distribution business (EDB) operates and maintains the transformers, power poles and copper wires that keep our local electricity networks running and delivering reliable electricity to the door. Examples in the EMA membership region are Northpower, Vector, Counties Power, WEL Networks and Powerco.

Lines companies in your power bill

Take my last home bill. The energy component, which is the part provided by my retailer, was $184.76. This part is subject to market competition and as a privileged, old white guy with a good credit history I can move freely between retailers chasing the best price. I can also take advantage of a prompt payment discount of $56.65 – nearly 30 per cent of the entire cost of the energy I purchased that month.

In the detail of my bill, however, is another bit called the “Daily Line Charge” of $52.85, being 33 days at $1.60 per day charged by my local lines company.

Electricity Monopolies and Regulations

Unlike retailers, lines companies are monopolies, not subject to competition and they supply an essential service. As a result, they are highly regulated by the Electricity Authority and the Commerce Commission.

Image result for Electricity Monopolies

This regulation occurs in three ways:

• Limits to the percentage return on the assets deployed,
• Legal requirements for the quality and price of service, and Company ownership structures.

There are 27 electricity distribution businesses in New Zealand. Some are privately owned such as the North Island giant, Powerco, which is owned by overseas investors and supplying electricity and gas to about 440,000 homes in the North Island.

There are public/private ownership companies such as Auckland’s Vector (supplying 331,000 households) which is 70 per cent owned by a consumer-owned trust and 30 per cent by shareholders on the stock exchange.

There are also 100 per cent consumer-owned trusts such as Counties Power and there are companies owned wholly or in part by local Councils, eg, Aurora, which is owned by Dunedin City Council.

Owners and investments

Ownership is critical when we look at pricing and quality of service and the impact of rules, regulations and the inconsistent behaviour of the regulators.

Privately-owned Powerco, for example, after years of underinvestment in lines infrastructure, last year went to the regulator asking for dispensation to increase its charges to consumers so it could remediate its increasingly dilapidated and unreliable infrastructure. Incredibly, the regulator agreed to this request without a whimper!

Meanwhile, further south, the Commerce Commission is indicating it will levy fines on council-owned Aurora for quality failures on its network. These failures have been attributed to Dunedin City Council’s active decision to use Aurora’s profits to help fund a new sports stadium and other civic works, while neglecting maintenance and renewal of its electricity infrastructure.

Back up north, after a one-in-100-year storm blew out the lights in Auckland last year, Vector was fined nearly $3.6 million by the Commerce Commission for failure to meet its reliability targets for the second year in a row. This, despite massive investment on Vector’s part in technology and improved services aimed specifically at improving quality.

Areas of economic growth such as Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and Franklin are faced with big increases in investment to meet demand, while many EDBs in the regions face regulatory demands for increased investment in infrastructure despite their consumer bases shrinking.

Ownership has a direct relationship to New Zealand’s electricity prices. Whether growing or shrinking, the reality is that EDBs are in a bind, because investment in maintaining and growing reliable infrastructure means price increases are a fact of life for the consumer.

In the meantime, the Electricity Authority’s price review seems to be wilfully ignoring the market-distorting behaviours being exhibited by the elephants in the room: the government-controlled generators/retailers (gentailers). We’ll take a look at them in an upcoming article…

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