Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Facing the Electricity Future


Democracies can make progress if enough people think about the future as well as today, and move beyond last night. Occasionally a critical mass of people gets consumed with the here and now, and forgets all about their children's and grandchildren's interests. Such was the case in New Zealand before 1984 when politicians with public support pursued policies that blighted our standard of living. Only now are we gradually struggling up the hill again to a world-class economy, although many New Zealanders find the knowledge test required extremely difficult. The French, Dutch and Germans are currently going through their bad patch. Their majorities feel it is possible to box on with failed economic policies rather than engage with the new disciplines required to fix things. European growth is falling, and unemployment rising, yet many say they want more spending and silly labour laws that caused the problems in the first place.

Refusing to face unpleasant choices blights progress on important issues. Despite the eighties, many Kiwis still think about today, and to hell with tomorrow. This is a big problem for those entrusted with keeping our electricity flowing. A tetchy public refuses to contemplate the need for new generating capacity and improved electricity reticulation. Loud groups want us to concentrate entirely on solar energy, savings schemes or wind farms, when all of them put together can't keep us abreast of future demand. Journalists breathlessly report protesters, yet forget past electricity crises caused by drought, or the Auckland blackout of 1998. Instead, we read the shouts of "not in my backyard" they hurl at Transpower officials who have the unenviable job of getting more power to Auckland. Like it or not, that is the metropolitan area containing a third of the country's population. It drives much of our economy, and its future is bleak unless Transpower can "keep the energy flowing", in line with its motto.

Politicians don't always assist planners either. As late as 1986 several MPs were still trying to drive construction of power dams for political, not economic reasons. I recall passionate speeches in the Labour caucus wanting construction of an extra billion dollar high dam to Luggate, in addition to the Clyde Dam, for no reason except that they'd made unauthorised promises to friendly unions about future jobs. At that time, barely 70% of existing electricity generating capacity was in use, and power resulting from the extra financial outlay would not be required for another 20-30 years. The instant builders lost; the exchequer had a breather. Instead, the unused capacity was gradually phased in during the following decade. Consequently, the Electricity Corporation was able to keep power prices below the rate of inflation. ECNZ's planners made a contribution to the national fight against inflation.

Demand kept rising. By the mid 1990s existing generating capacity was being used at 90% capacity. It was time to resume planning and building. However, politicians flunked the test. Ministers siphoned off so much in dividends from ECNZ that it was left with inadequate reserves to build for future needs. Moreover, politicians are still refusing to face the fact that we will eventually have to install nuclear power. There aren't enough rivers left to be dammed, nor sufficient gas. We do have coal, but there are many more down-sides to its wide-spread burning than to the installation of nuclear power. The 1978 Royal Commission's report into nuclear energy predicted we would probably need it by the early years of this century, and that by then the technology would be safe. The commissioners were right about safety. The report recommended that preliminary site investigations, and "an active public education policy" for nuclear generation, should start forthwith. Twenty-six years later I am unaware that either has occurred. Instead, media attention is given to an assortment of false prophets, most of them the same reactionaries who today retard progress on so many fronts in Europe.

Bumper-sticker sloganeering doesn't make for responsible public policy. Right now, New Zealanders need to get to grips with slowing economic growth. They should encourage sensible reductions to needlessly high taxes, and the removal of excessive regulations and unnecessary bureaucracy, all of which retard growth. More than that, we must grapple with hard choices on energy. We need give and take, and compensation for those adversely affected by developments that are in the national interest. Let's not go through another election campaign where our future electricity needs aren't even mentioned.