Aurora Energy plan to hike prices frustrates Queenstown Lakes residents

Queenstown Lakes residents have slammed Aurora Energy plans to hike power prices, calling the power company untrustworthy, unreliable and even incompetent.

22363608 - electricity pylon against the blue sky

(File image).
Photo: 123RF

The company has applied to the Commerce Commission with its latest investment proposal, including plans to spend $383 million over the next three years – or $609m over five years – to address historic under-investment.

It owns and operates the poles lines and other electricity equipment, distributing power to about 90,000 homes, farms and businesses in Dunedin, Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes.

Today the Commission held an online consultation for residents to have their say on the plan before the district council voted on their own submission in an extraordinary meeting.

For Wanaka and Queenstown residents, today’s consultation was a chance to air their concerns about Aurora Energy after in-person sessions were cancelled due to Covid-19.

The company’s plan is expected to cost residents across the region $20 to $30 more on their monthly power bill if the three-year proposal goes ahead.

That increases by another $5 to $6 a month for the last two years if the five-year plan is accepted.

Aurora Energy said the investment was needed to address historic under-spend that has caused an increasing number of safety incidents and power outages.

Associate Commissioner John Crawford said it was the Commerce Commission’s role to work out whether the investment was justified, was in the best interests of the community, and to set the reliability standards.

“Ultimately we’re here because we all want the same thing and that’s for Aurora to fix its network for the long term, and make sure that this situation doesn’t happen again. Now we clearly have a role to play in getting the network fixed. But it’s not all encompassing, we don’t have a silver bullet and we don’t have all the answers,” Crawford said.

“We want to be absolutely convinced that if we allow them to spend additional revenue that they’ve got the proper process in place to ensure that that additional revenue is spent efficiently and on the right things.”

That was where he hoped residents could step in with their feedback.

Steve Tilleyshort, a former Delta engineer – who was under contract for Aurora Energy – said she didn’t trust the directors and managers with money.

“I think they’re incompetent to manage that money,” he said.

The community wasn’t pleased with Aurora, Tilleyshort said.

“I can’t overemphasise the lack of trust in Aurora. Their communication is arrogant and gets technical so it throws off members of the public very quickly.”

Radio Central’s Shane Norton said the poor communication came to a head on Mother’s Day.

“All the contractors turned up and took the power off for the main street of (Alexandra), Centennial Ave and surrounds, and Aurora hadn’t communicated to anybody that that would be happening. So you can imagine the cafe next door was one of their busiest days of the year,” Norton said.

Workers packed up after realising no-one had been told about the outage – but it wasn’t the first time that had happened, he said.

Queenstown Lakes District councillors met to vote on their draft submission, which called the investment plan unaffordable, detrimental to community wellbeing, and didn’t accurately reflect visitor demand, population growth or the inevitable economic and social impact of increased outages.

Councillor Niamh Shaw was concerned by the investment plan.

“There seems to be no accountability on Aurora as to how we have ended up in a situation where we’ve got a monopoly that is arguably insolvent that wants to pass on extensive charges to its customers.”

The company has applied to the Commission to relax the limits on unplanned outages for the duration of the investment plan – which they breached and were fined close to $5 million in March.

It was unacceptable for the breaches to continue, Shaw said.

“I just think it reduces oversight even further to simply say ‘oh well, since this is already happening, let’s just relax the limits so they’re not in breach of them’.”

Councillor Glyn Lewers said the market’s regulator, the Electricity Authority, wanted the costs to fall where they lie – which would see Central Otago and Wanaka residents paying up to $10 more on their monthly power bill than Dunedin consumers.

“I think we’ve got a very good argument to push to socialise this cost over the whole region. I think given the recent history of how we got into this situation … that should be spread across the region, given the actions taken.”

In its feedback, councillors recommended Aurora should choose the five-year plan, find a viable way to reduce the financial impact of the district’s communities, reinvest some of its $5m fine into the community to help mitigate the price rise and establish an effective customer panel for Aurora to hear and engage more with the community’s voice.

Councillors voted unanimously to submit their feedback to the Commission and direct the council’s chief executive to share that with the Electricity Authority and seek a response.

Aurora Energy sent a written response, saying its formal consultation on the plan closed in January and that was then revised in June following further feedback from the community and other stakeholders.

“A consistent theme has been that customers agreed that essential work was necessary, but were concerned about the proposed price increase and we had those views clearly in mind as we finalised our proposal,” a spokesperson said.

“As part of the regulatory process, the Commerce Commission is now conducting its own consumer consultation. We are pleased to see the council intends to provide further feedback to the Commission. We encourage anyone wanting to have their say to get involved with the [www.comcom.govt.nz/aurora Commission’s process through its website.”]

The Commerce Commission expects to make a draft decision in November ahead of more consultation with a final decision expected in the new year.

Published at Thu, 20 Aug 2020 07:13:09 +0000
Source: Aurora Energy plan to hike prices frustrates Queenstown Lakes residents