South Australian electricity suppliers "punished"
by Bob Briton Operators of several South Australian power plants were fined recently by the National Electricity Tribunal for failing to provide clear and accurate information about the availability of power during the Moomba gas crisis in January. At one stage during a disruption to gas supplies, it appeared that gas- fired plants would be forced to cease production and cause a crippling electricity shortage in SA. Rapid repairs to the Moomba plant prevented such an eventuality. Questions arose, however, about the behaviour of a number of power generators during the crisis. State Treasurer Kevin Foley accused NRG Flinders of profiteering by withholding 170 MW of electricity from the market and raising its asking price for power from $269 a megawatt hour to $9697. Last week the Tribunal imposed a fine of $25,000 on NRG for providing inadequate or misleading information about the availability of electricity from its two Port Augusta plants. The body held back from finding that the company was "gaming" the system and, for this reason, did not impose a heavier fine. Origin Energy was given a $50,000 for similar offences involving its Ladbroke Grove plant while International Power had already been penalised to the tune of $10,000 for providing unclear information about the availability of supplies from its Dry Creek and Minarto power stations. The National Electricity Code Administrator, SA's Essential Services Commissioner and state Energy Minister Pat Conlon have all expressed their concern at the lightness of the penalties. Adelaide's daily Advertiser went so far as to suggest in an editorial that the present maximum penalty of $100,000 for these sorts of practices should be increased to "$1 million at least"! None of the parties listed above were reported as questioning the Tribunal's findings, which did not hold the operators guilty of trying to make huge windfall profits during the gas crisis. Perhaps the recent behaviour of NRG Flinders, for example, is being excused on the occasion in question because it didn't get any buyers for its electricity at its massively inflated price. The recent transgressions of the electricity code follow a pattern going back to the day the utility was privatised. On one notable occasion — December 17th last year — NRG was able to withhold supply and force up the spot price of electricity from $59 MW/hour to $3012 MW/hour. This produced earnings of $2.17 million in one afternoon. A $10,000 fine could be paid out of the petty cash tin of an operation like that. A million dollar fine could even be factored in if returns like that of December 17th can be had. It is hardly surprising that more and more commentators are starting to give voice to what SA's electricity consumers have been saying for some time — the state's electricity utility should never have been privatised and that it should be put back into public ownership as soon as possible.