OPINION: Alpine sale debate reveals depth of expertise among us

SHARE

THE ALPINE ENERGY DEBATE

What a fascinating exercise the Timaru District Council (TDC) proposal to sell its 47.5% shareholding of the region’s electricity distribution company, Alpine Energy, turned out to be.

The council issued a sale proposal document that was very short on critical details but floated a possible $110million sale price with a vague indication of how the funds would be used.

A strong community response soon told the TDC that the community greatly valued this local investment, believing it was ensuring that they had a reliable and low-priced electricity supply. Many simply responded by saying “No” to the idea of selling.

Probably the most pressing issue is to strategically prepare for a range of possibilities arising from the coalition government’s electricity review process.

However, a range of businesses and private citizens quickly turned the debate into a more informative exercise for the entire community.

From greater than 500 responses, some 42 took the opportunity of the 10-minute slots offered to be heard in front of a full council.

Many of these presentations revealed a depth of understanding not only about the national electricity system itself but what role Alpine Energy played in this structure.

Issues raised ranged from how well Alpine Energy met the consumers’ belief that they were benefiting from low pricing, through to how the Alpine business could be fairly valued immediately prior to another major review of the electricity sector being announced.

The imminent developments in new solar panels and electric vehicle recharging were also identified as significant future challenges for distribution companies like Alpine Energy.

The overwhelming view was “not to sell”.

For me, given the community’s notoriously poor attendance record at pre-election local body meetings, this was a great example of effective community consultation and engagement.

Yes, council staff can advise and help educate the councillors on details impacting key decisions.

However, there will generally be people in our communities who have specialist expertise well beyond that of councillors and their staff.

Engaged and knowledgeable citizen inputs can help both councillors, as well as the wider community, come to the best possible long-term decisions.

I believe the councillors, now they have made the decision not to sell, need to urgently address a range of issues and inputs that were highlighted during this review process.

Probably the most pressing issue is to strategically prepare for a range of possibilities arising from the coalition Government’s electricity review process.

The major question is whether Alpine Energy is in good shape and ready to respond if the review decisions call for significant restructuring throughout the 29 distribution companies nationwide.

The decision of the TDC to float the concept of selling its Alpine Energy stake, along with the process then followed, was in my view a huge success.

Everybody who was motivated to become engaged was consulted and I believe this has produced a win-win for the council and shareholders.

Maybe the major issues in the TDC long-term plan should be subject to a similar citizens’ face-to-face debate with councillors.

Council strategic plans need widespread community commitment and engagement to be successful.

Timaru resident Jim Scott is a former Air New Zealand chief executive officer and a strategic consultant for small-to-medium enterprises.