Power bills to soar

There is a local angle to the recent media frenzy about the huge increases in electricity prices coming our way.

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) announced price increases of between 44 and 62% over the next three years for the three “standard retail suppliers” of electricity in NSW. On the North Coast our standard supplier is Country Energy, which was allowed to increase prices by the greatest amount of the three. The average household in our region, which IPART calculates currently pays $1446 annually, will pay nearly $900 more per year for their electricity in three years time.

After generations of enjoying energy which cost only about 3% of average household income, that is a massive impost – especially in a region with a high proportion of low income households. IPART explained that the rise was due to two main factors: the need for new infrastructure to maintain reliable supply (over half the increase, or nearly $10 per week), and the “carbon cost” imposed by the federal government’s planned Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (one-third of the increase, or nearly $6 per week).

The opposition of the Coalition leadership and independent senators to the CPRS means that it is unlikely to become law this year, even if a deal is struck between the government and the Greens. But in the long run, it is inevitable that there will be a price on carbon, that it will be passed on to households, and that at least some compensation will be offered to vulnerable consumers. Surveys have consistently shown that Australians are willing to pay to clean up the environment, as long as the measures are effective and fair.

But the other side of this coin is the even larger cost for network upgrades. The NSW opposition has accused the government of using the price hikes to “fatten up” the three state-owned retailers before they are sold off soon to the private sector. Senator Wong also accused the state government of needing huge price increases now to make up for years of neglecting to upgrade infrastructure, preferring instead to take tens of millions of dollars from the state-owned retailers in annual dividends to bolster the state budget.

One of the planned network upgrades is a $227 high-voltage transmission line from the rural landscape of the Dumaresq Valley, west of Tenterfield, over the Great Divide and down to Lismore. The new line is supposedly needed to service the growing population and increasing energy hunger of the North Coast. This project is being proposed by TransGrid, the state-owned monopoly builder and operator of transmission lines. Its income is directly related to the amount of energy carried on its network. Nearly 90% of this energy currently comes from coal-fired power stations.

Greenhouse emissions in NSW in 2007 were 6% higher than in 2000 and are still rising, due to the state’s continued reliance on coal-fired power. Last month the government approved two new power stations, at Bayswater and Mount Piper, which could be fuelled by coal. The government dropped its target of reducing emissions to 2000 levels by 2025 from this year’s performance report on the State Plan, which was also released last week.

Opponents of the TransGrid project believe the company has greatly overestimated the future population increase on the north coast and has not made any real effort to consider alternatives. These include encouraging households to use more energy in off-peak times, invest in energy efficiency and increase their use of renewable energy.

Locals also point out the destructive ecological impacts of cutting a 60 metre wide swathe through areas of high biodiversity including state and federally listed threatened ecological communities of box gum woodland, inland grey box woodland, and subtropical coastal floodplain forest. It also involves widening the Mallanganee Gap west of Casino. This is a “missing link” in the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative — an ambitious ecological corridor which is planned to extend from north Queensland to Victoria. The hope is that it will help native plants and animals adapt to climate change by allowing them to shift their ranges.

So not every network upgrade is necessarily a good thing, even if demand is rising. You could buy a lot of solar water heaters, for instance, for $227 million, and put off the need for a network upgrade until more renewable energy could be sourced locally.

We’ve already got two bioenergy plants at the sugar mills at Condong and Broadwater. While they have had teething problems, there is much more potential in this rich agricultural region for generating energy from sources as diverse as waste timber, green landfill and feedlot effluent.

Since Metgasco announced a major new gas find under Casino in December, the North Coast is also likely to have a source of lower carbon energy in the near future that would overcome the need to pump coal-fired power long distances over the national grid.

The environmental assessment for the TransGrid project is likely to be on public exhibition soon, and you can have a say. You may have other options to reduce your power bills. Some retailers offer contracts that can save you money by encouraging you to avoid using lots of power during peak demand periods.

Also, in spite of the ceiling insulation debacle, there are still generous rebates available for rooftop solar power and solar hot water systems. And thanks to the new NSW feed-in tariff, you can sell the power you produce back to the retailer at a minimum of 60 cents per kilowatt hour. With residential prices currently around 20 cents per kilowatt hour, that’s a healthy form of future-proofing.

Mark Byrne is education officer at the EDO Northern Rivers. For more information or help about this or any other environmental law issue, please call 1300 369 791 or email edonr@edo.org.au.

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