Magazine article IPA Review

Current Affairs

Magazine article IPA Review

Current Affairs

Article excerpt

E.D.J. Stewart

Transforming Power: The Politics of

Electricity Planning

by Aynsley Kellow

Cambridge University Press

THIS complex academic book seeks to draw attention to a major problem in today's industrial nations - planning for and providing low-cost electrical energy. The author has done an immense amount of research into developments in five large electrical utilities in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, over the last two decades in particular. The bibliography at the end of the book lists about 300 items.

Professor of Social Science in the Faculty of Environmental Science at Griffith University, Queensland, Kellow describes himself as a political scientist. The focus of his book is the politics of electricity planning.

His interest in this topic began when he was a student in Southern New Zealand. At that time he became concerned at the impact of the large hydroelectric scheme based on the waters of Lake Manapouri, there to provide lowcost power for an aluminium

smelter at nearby Invercargill, jointly owned by English, Japanese and Australian interests. In the 1970s the smelter was to become the largest industrial project in New Zealand.

Kellow's concern led him to embark on two decades of study and research on the planning and the impact of major electricity utility projects.

His work aims to attract two sets of readers: those in electricity utilities or in government agencies and departments associated with electricity planning; and those with a more academic interest in the relationship between "society and technologically sophisticated areas of human activity", particularly the politics of that relationship.

There is every reason for the concern expressed in the book that forecasting and planning by electricity-generation authorities since the mid-1970s has been little short of disastrous in all Australian States, except South Australia. Four of the States had embarked on excessive spending on major new generation projects. The slowing down of demand for power, as electricity prices rose significantly, meant that capacity was far in excess of requirements by the mid-1980s. Capital debt grew an average of 400 per cent during this decade. The SEC of Victoria was in the worst position, its debt increasing from about $1.5 billion to approaching $9 billion. In South Australia the increase was 100 per cent, roughly the increase in inflation during the period.

Kellow criticizes bureaucratic processes, the increasingly grand designs of engineers and a lack of public involvement, but makes no really significant attempt to examine the individual whys and wherefores which would explain the States' performances in this area. Victoria was undoubtedly the worst case, despite the intervention and the pseudoreform of the Cain and Kirner Governments. The value of the book would have been greater had the author monitored the progress of the planning activities year by year and commented on how and when things went wrong.

Governments and politicians have an obvious interest in electricity generation. Because of our economic dependence on low-cost electrical energy, gas and petrol, governments like to be seen to be doing all they can - note I have said "seen to be doing" - to keep the costs of energy down, and to make States self-sufficient as far as possible in order to minimize the impact of changes in other parts of the world causing local prices to rise. …

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