Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mixed progress on reform of power prices

Do you think you're paying too much for electricity? Would you like to see an end to hefty annual price rises, maybe even a fall in prices that goes beyond the abolition of the carbon tax? Well, be patient. The econocrats are working on it.

It may surprise you that they've been in the process of reforming electricity prices for the best part of 20 years, and they're far from finished. They got part of the power system working well, had a bad slip with another bit, and the jury's still out on a third. But they're working away and are confident of success - eventually.

The national electricity market - covering all of Australia bar Western Australia and the Northern Territory - is actually a creation of our econocrats, their grand experiment in market competition.

Before this, we had separate, state-owned monopolies that charged us pretty much what they wanted to charge, particularly because our demand for power kept growing every year. The reformers' bright idea was to link up all the eastern and southern states and turn them into a market by making all the individual power stations compete to feed electricity into the national grid at the lowest prices possible.

Buying the power at the other end of the grid would be various electricity retailers, which would deal directly with households and business users. These, too, would be required to compete with each other to win our business, since we'd be free to buy our power from whichever retailer we chose.

Linking the power stations in the wholesale market with the retailers supplying power to you and me would be the high-voltage transmission and lower-voltage distribution network (the "poles and wires", as pollies keep calling it).

Since it would never be economic to build rival networks, this would have to stay as a monopoly. And being a monopoly, whether it was sold off or remained government-owned, the prices it charged the retailers - and they passed on to us - would need to be closely regulated to prevent rip-offs.

The reform of the first part of the system has worked really well. Competition between the electricity generators has been cut-throat, prices haven't changed much over the years and no power stations are making excessive profits.

But the cost of generating the electricity makes up only about 30 per cent of the retail prices we pay. The big problem has been that faulty rules have prompted the regulators of the network operators' charges to grant them excessive increases, to the point where "network charges" now explain about half of retail power prices.

It's five years of these big increases, much more than the carbon tax or the renewable energy target, that have caused retail prices to grow so fast. A big part of the problem is that, about four years ago, the demand for electricity, which had been growing every year for a century, stopped growing and started falling.
It fell mainly because of new laws requiring appliances to be more efficient in their use of power and because all the fuss Tony Abbott was making about the price of electricity prompted us to be more price-conscious and look for ways to reduce our usage.

The network operators began investing heavily to improve the capacity of the network to meet the ever-higher peak demand for power on hot summer afternoons when a growing number of us had airconditioners going full blast.

One small problem: the fall in annual demand for electricity meant the brief seasonal peak had stopped rising. For several years the industry refused to believe the downturn in demand from the network was more than a blip.

So we've expanded the capacity of the network beyond what we're likely to need for some time. But you and I are paying extra for this expansion and will continue paying until it's paid off.

The good news is the econocrats have finally woken up to the problem. Actually, they were woken up in 2012 by the fuss Julia Gillard made when she realised Abbott was framing her for price rises she didn't cause.

In 2012 the rules were changed to give the regulators greater power to limit increases in the network charges passed on to retailers. Such changes take far longer than you'd imagine to flow through, but from now on it seems likely the network component of retail electricity bills will stay fairly steady in dollar terms.

The econocrats have proposed a further reform which, when it takes effect, will require the networks to bill retailers according to the time of day and time of year when you and I use electricity. With the spread of "smart meters" - which show the precise times when each household uses its electricity - we'll be charged according to our time of use, with those of us who show restraint during peak periods paying less, and those who don't paying more. This should produce a lasting solution to the (expensive) problem of ever-rising peak demand on hot afternoons.

That leaves the question of the effectiveness of competition between the growing number of electricity retailers, big and small. Here the jury is still out. Much depends on how smart we are in finding the retailer offering the best deal - on which quest I offer some tips in my little online video spiel.

Monday, September 1, 2014

How the econocrats can lift their game

When we judge the performance of chief executives, most of us know the boss who's good at cutting costs isn't worth as much as the boss who's also able to improve the outfit's products and processes. Well, the same goes for treasurers and finance ministers - and their econocrats.

It seems the fiscal managers are running low on good ideas. But not to worry - the former Treasury and prime ministerial adviser Dr Ric Simes, now of Deloitte Access Economics, had some useful advice to offer in a speech to the Australian Business Economists last week.

Simes argues governments themselves have an important role to play in achieving the improved productivity performance the econocrats keep saying we need. Especially when "productivity" is better thought of as "technological progress" and the figures for measured productivity aren't as important as actual improvements in welfare.

"For those parts of the economy where market forces are paramount, government's main role is to make sure that regulation or its own actions allow competition to unfold without unwarranted intervention," Simes says.

To me, this means econocrats should urge their masters to tread carefully when powerful business interests, fighting to shore up a technologically superseded business model, demand that governments make breaches of government-granted copyright a hanging offence.

As Simes says, digital technologies have lower entry barriers and are forcing businesses to be both more productive and more responsive to consumers. So don't help incumbents resist change.

But, he says, the potential for technology to make some of the largest improvements in Australian lives lies in government-heavy sectors including health, education and transport. In these areas, progress has been too gradual.

"The exemplar is probably electronic health records, which have been the focus of considerable effort for perhaps 15 years now, but where we still seem to be a long way off the goal of having them routinely used throughout the health system.

"Or, take even an example where we have done well, the SCATS - Sydney Co-ordinated Adaptive Traffic System - for control of traffic lights. SCATS was originally developed 40 years ago, it has been constantly refined since then and is now in use in 27 countries.

"So, a success story - yet, as a Sydney driver, I know my welfare would be improved with a more refined SCATS system. It's coming - NICTA [the National Information Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence] and others are working on optical-based monitoring and improved optimisation algorithms - but more support for both the research and especially its deployment would lift my welfare!"

Simes notes that in both cases, electronic health records and SCATS, the strict efficiency improvements from the technology - the bit that would help government budgets - represent a relatively small part of the overall benefits to the community.

"Especially in health and education, many of the benefits will involve improvements in the quality and range of services rather than efficiency gains," he says.

"Making the most effective use of digital technologies in health and education - as well as other areas where government has a direct role, such as smart technologies in transport and utilities - will deliver much larger economic and social benefits than where we seem to like to focus much of our policy attention, such as whether we should get the budget back into balance by 2017 or 2019."

Another potentially major area of micro-economic reform, Simes says, is how we organise our cities. Up to 80 per cent of Australia's output and employment occurs within its major cities. This has happened in the pursuit of economies of agglomeration.

"Yet we know that the problems are mounting. Congestion, compromised open spaces, the loss of amenity all risk detracting more and more from those benefits."

As with digital, many of the benefits from fixing these problems would not show up in our standard measures of welfare derived from the national accounts.

"Ten minutes less travelling time to work, or to school, doesn't have direct effects on gross domestic product. A more vibrant space around the harbour, or convenient shopping centre in the 'burbs, doesn't get picked up. But social welfare is clearly affected," he says.

Taking Sydney as an example, if commuter travel times on its roads were reduced by five minutes per trip, the benefits would amount to $3.6 billion a year, if an individual's time is valued at average weekly earnings.

To this you could add savings for freight or commercial vehicles. And savings for going to the shops, or school, or to the beach.

Echoing the patron saint of treasurers, Simes wants to lift our gaze to "the big picture".