Friday, 6 October 2017

They're like buses... sooner did we get a big chunk of reporting on the electricity markets on Tuesday from the Electricity Authority (which I posted about), but on Wednesday we got the latest information disclosure data on the electricity lines businesses from the Commerce Commission. Here's the (brief) media release and here's the entrance point to the data, which cover the period ending March '17.

It's an odd industry sector. Mostly, in a small economy like ours, we risk having heavily concentrated sectors with limited numbers of players, but we've also some sectors where you wonder how we go on supporting the numbers we do, and, you'd suspect, with the accompanying issues of inefficiencies of scale. The electricity lines game is one that looks like it could do with quite a bit of rationalisation: twenty-nine lines companies for 4.8 million people looks over the top, especially as some are very tiny indeed in terms of customer numbers.

Buller Electricity, the smallest, has only 4,579 customer connections: for perspective, the median lines company has some 185,000 connections, and the biggest (Vector) has over 550,000. There's no reason barring historical accident why Buller should be a standalone entity, and why it hasn't been folded into neighbouring Westpower long ago is a mystery to me. It wouldn't be a massive efficiency - Westpower itself has only 13,448 connections - but it would be a start. Similarly for the rest of the minnows - Scanpower in Dannevirke (6,690 connections), Centralines in Waipukurau (8,496), Nelson Electricity (9,203), and Network Waitaki in Oamaru (12,710).

But we are where we are, as they say, and if you want to find out pretty much anything about the current 29, the comprehensive Commerce Commission data is where to go.

There are terrific snapshots of each one on its own if you click on the map of the lines' networks and follow the 'Download doc' link provided for each network. Here for random example is just a small part of the data on the Orion network showing the state of its lines and cables assets, and there's lots more on its operating and financial performance.

The data are not, however, the most accessible thing you'll ever use if you want to make comparisons. The summary report on each company does give some ranking information on how it compares with the others (Orion for example ranks 3rd on a lot of metrics), but if you take the view - as I do - that a good deal of the value from information disclosure regimes comes from looking at relative performance, you'll likely want more than the single-company summaries will give you.

The good news is that the information is there, but it's not immediately obvious where*. So just to make the whole thing easier, I've done it for you - here's a 'Handy ELB ranking guide', where I've also done a bit of colouring (price/quality regulated companies in red, information disclosure companies in black) plus fixed the 'return on investment' line so it better displays the return.

The data are a great starting point for analysis, and could answer any number of interesting questions: are there, for example, any systematic differences between the consumer-owned companies (subject only to information disclosure) and the rest of them (subject to price/quality control)? And what about those efficiencies of scale that I've implicitly assumed earlier? Research economists are always on the look-out for that treasure-trove of as-yet-untilled data: here's a prime candidate.

Whether anyone is, in fact, making good analytical use of this information is another question. It would probably help - and I understand the Commission has it in its plans - to put out some version of this data with interpretative commentary for a general audience, as the Telco Commissioner for example does with annual reports on the telco sector (they're here if you haven't seen them). Information disclosure as a regulatory option has its uses, and maybe those most keenly interested in the sector won't need the info spoon-fed for them, but for the bulk of the intelligent public this very useful data could do with a bit more PR assistance.

*If you go to the network map and scroll down, under 'Documents' you'll see there's a link to a spreadsheet, 'Performance summaries for electricity distributors - Year to 31 March 2017'.  Go to the 'One-pager' sheet of the spreadsheet. Top left, just under the 'Clipboard' command, there's an input box with a dropdown arrow: currently it says 'edb-name'.  Click on the down arrow, from the options that pop up pick 'r-rank', and hey presto - up come two sets of rankings of all 29, one showing the absolute values of the measures and the order showing each company's rank from 1 to 29.


  1. Some of those dashboards on the estimated state of the asset bases do not make for pretty reading.

    1. Thanks Ben. I was wondering along the same lines myself. I was also wondering whether the consumer-owned ELBs are slower to spend on gear than the others: as with local authority rates, there may be an electoral penalty for those who propose raising prices, even if prices need to rise to keep the lights on long term. The current, political, 2.5% limit on AKL rate rises is a case in point, when the Council has massive bills falling due for necessary infrastructure. When I've half a mo I'll start fossicking.