Power prices in the Hunter

BACK in the ‘‘bad old days’’ of publicly owned power, things all seemed so simple.

Electricity commissions built power stations as demand required. State coalmines provided the fuel for a modest margin over cost. Regionally based distribution organisations kept the system running and handled the sale of power to consumers.

Electricity was considered a public good, so taxes were levied to pay for its production and delivery.

Free market pundits pointed out the inefficiency of all this, and governments have for some time been progressively selling the industry to private investors.

Now the fuel must be bought from private mining companies that want prices comparable with those obtainable on the export market.

Privately owned power stations have to provide shareholder returns and the public is no longer welcome to scrutinise their accounts.

Private retailers also pursue profits and soon, in NSW, even the poles and wires will be booked as assets for shareholders in private corporations.

The new multiplicity of profit-seeking entities in the deregulated power market has created complexity, opacity and a variety of seeming paradoxes.

For example, wholesale electricity prices have been falling for some time and are now reportedly about the same as they were in 1998 when the National Electricity Market was established.

Eastern Australia’s vanishing manufacturing industries are leaving the market with an oversupply and many households are working hard to cut consumption

But despite the low wholesale prices, consumers are paying record prices for power with more price rises on the way.

Another strange paradox is that the Hunter Region, one of the biggest power-producing districts in Australia, is paying more for electricity than other regions far distant from their nearest power station.

Last month it was reported that the Hunter would be hit with some of the biggest power bill increases in NSW and a global survey has named the region as one of the highest-priced electricity markets in the world.

That seems illogical, but logic is not the strong point of Australia’s power market.

Governments might enjoy being able to say, when consumers complain about out-of-control prices and poor service – that the problem is no longer their fault. But because governments have created the environment in which prices have been enabled to spiral ever upwards, they will still be blamed by the householders who must pay the bills.

Diamond jubilee

IT is extraordinary to reflect on the social changes that have occurred since 1952, when Queen Elizabeth II became the symbolic and ceremonial ruler of the British Commonwealth.

During her 60-year reign the monarchy’s grip on Australia’s affections has certainly faded, but the queen’s personal popularity remains strong.

Most Australians, republicans included, will wish the Queen well following the occasion of her diamond jubilee.

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