I have fairly omnivorous interests but electricity, and the attendant policy issues, has never been among those interests. When the sector was being reformed 20 years ago, it was one of the topics – endlessly discussed on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report – that I would simply zone out as I drove to work. I don’t know how much our household pays each month for electricity and without looking it up couldn’t even name who our supplier is.
I hear the stories that appear each winter about the pressure some people face as regards electricity costs. My (uninformed) presumption usually is that any issue is mostly about the shockingly poor rates of labour productivity in New Zealand, in turn reflected in the relatively low incomes the New Zealand economy supports, with some mix thrown in of changing tastes, poor disciplines, bad luck, and perhaps some issues at the margin around how the welfare system treats a handful of people. Life is tough at the bottom. Our “bottom” is so much worse than it need be, and successive generations of politicians should be held accountable for that.
But when the electricity review document was released the other day, I decided to dip into some numbers and see what I could find out. As has been highlighted repeatedly, there has been a big shift over recent decades such that residential user (real) power prices have risen substantially while commercial and industrial (real) prices have been pretty flat or even falling.
So the argument goes, there was previously considerable cross-subsidisation in favour of domestic users. In particular, there has been a big change in how distribution costs are allocated.
But how do New Zealand prices compare with those in other advanced countries? The review report has some charts showing those numbers, using OECD data (all national data is converted into USD using PPP exchange rates).
Here are household charges
Just focusing on the blue bars, the basic (ex-tax) electricity prices New Zealand households face is around those of the median OECD country. We are, of course, poorer and less productive than the median OECD country, so the burden of any of the necessities of life will tend to fall more heavily here than in many other advanced countries.
What about industrial prices? Here is another chart from the review.
New Zealand prices for industrial users are among the lower in the OECD.
The OECD data MBIE reports goes back only to 2000, but here is how New Zealand prices have changed relative to those of the median OECD country over that period for both the residential and industrial series (using only the countries for which there is a complete series of data).
For what it is worth, there hasn’t been much change in the blue (residential) line over the last decade.
I was interested not just in the medians, but in the countries with the lowest power prices. After all, it used to be something we boasted of here – one of the great advantages of life (and business) in New Zealand: one of the arguments for the establishment of Comalco decades ago. Norway, Canada, the US, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark (ex taxes) all have among the lowest electricity prices for both residential and industrial users. In Norway, in particular, both lots of prices are far far lower than those in New Zealand. And in Norway – notwithstanding all that oil and gas – something between 95 and 99 per cent (depending on which source you look up) of electricity generation is from hydro sources – where the energy source itself comes, in effect, free. The hydro+geothermal share in New Zealand also used to be above 90 per cent.
One reason why the hydro share of electricity production has dropped away in New Zealand is our relatively rapid population growth. There are only so many rivers (and environmental/political constraints on using more anyway) and lots more people.
For a long time, the biggest factor driving electricity consumption/production wasn’t the number of people, but their (per capita) demands to use electricity. I looked up an old yearbook. Between about (I’m eyeballing a small chart) 1942 and 1955 electricity consumption per capita doubled. Between about 1955 and 1971 it doubled again. MBIE data show that by 1996 it had doubled again. But here is the MBIE data on per capita electricity consumption since 1990 (sadly only updated to 2015).
Consumption per capita peaked in 2006, and in the most recent year was below the 10000 Kwh per capita first reached in 1996. But our population now is almost a third larger than it was in 1996, and all of us (well, a few hermits aside perhaps) need/use electricity.
The new SNZ preferred (and genuinely better) measure of net migration only starts from 2001 and is only available up to early 2017. But over just that period, net immigration of non New Zealand citizens – with the most aggressive (per capita) immigration policy anywhere over most of that period – has contributed directly 741000 new people of a total population increase in that period of 936000. All those people, natives and migrants, will have added to electricity demand.
Of course, the other factor that greatly influences the level of electricity production in New Zealand and, thus, the marginal price is the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point, reported to consume perhaps 13 per cent of total electricity production. The smelter was kept open a few years ago only as a result of new taxpayer subsidies (described by sceptics from the left and right as “corporate welfare”).
It is hard not to think that if our politicians had not been so determined to keep Tiwai Point open, and so determined to rapidly drive up our population in a unpropitious location (and despite the complete lack of evidence of resulting productivity gains), electricity prices for all other users would be rather lower. Oh, and those with a renewables target in mind would have been able to rest easy too.
Then again, having adopted strategies that successfully lifted productivity – clearly requiring something different in key areas to the approaches followed here for decades – would also have eased the burden on poor households of electricity prices.