Energy policy as a political football

So we’ve had Labour and the Greens make the cost of energy the first big pillar of their upcoming election campaign.

So we’ve had Labour and the Greens make the cost of energy the first big pillar of their upcoming election campaign.  The energy industry is important in a number of ways, is something people care about, and is definitely policy relevant – so it is a good pick.  I’d note I don’t talk on “political levels” (my own failure to be sure), but it is a good area to discuss in terms of the policy society desires.

Now I’ll be honest that given this I was heavily disappointed with the analysis done by the Greens and Labour. There have been two good posts discussing the issues – Lance Wiggs and Seamus Hogan.  This isn’t going to be one of those posts.  Instead I’m going to complain about something.

I’ve seen lots of people on Twitter bang on about “ideology", “starting a debate”, etc etc … but the fundamental number they provided of an average household saving $230-$330 pa is what MOST of the public cares about.  I respect the dudes and dudettes who have been saying “hey, let’s just discuss energy policy” but I’ve just spent the last few days listening to a large number of my non-economist friends going on about how they like the idea that Labour is going to give them this money ... and that figure is a load of complete crud.

Ignore the BERL report here.  I have no real criticism of them – they were VERY transparent with their assumptions so I knew from the start that:

  1. They had assumed the energy boost was a given – they were told it by Labour and were just running a scenario,
  2. They had excluded government dividends,
  3. They had assumed persistently deficient demand.

Yes, all these assumptions will in turn increase the size of the result – but none of them are actually too relevant to the claim that Labour and Greens are selling the most, that is will improve the money in your pocket.

Instead I get the feeling that Labour seems willing to ignore capital costs (I’d note the Greens do talk about the LRMC).  When looking at the electricity industry, we want to think about long-run marginal costs rather than short-run marginal costs – given that we are talking about an industry with massive fixed costs (huge costs of investment).  Kiwiblog suggests that this important point may have been put by the wayside, the use of the Wolak report gives further fuel to this fire, and finally via the Labour site:

Hydroelectric power makes up almost two-thirds of our electricity, and it costs next to nothing to generate because it uses free water and dams that were paid off years ago.

This is what the site says now – when it first came out it said “free water and dams”.  The change doesn’t matter though – as you still need to invest in new capacity as demand rises and you need to maintain the current capital stock!

Now, there are things that I would like to see work on (given I’m not an industrial economist, I don’t have the research and evidence in my head that other true industrial economists do).

  • Why has the relative price of residential power risen so quickly (relative to commercial and residential)?
  • Why has investment in the industry seemed patchy at best?

Given that the electricity industry is probably the second most regulated and researched industry in New Zealand (I’m putting it behind telecommunications – although I may well have them the wrong way around!) the answers are probably out there, and ways to improve current regulation probably exist. 

As a result of all this, the Labour-Greens decision to pick only a single report, misuse the figures, ignore the criticisms of those figures, and then publish a policy impact that is effectively a LIE is all the more disgusting. Ask some of the myriad of experts out there for some help making policy; hell some of them are Labour supporters and will likely work at a cut price.

Sidenote:  National doesn’t get off for free here – socialism, communism, really?  In of itself a monopsony buyer is not something you can just rule out due to “ideology”.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs and TVHE

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