Speaker by Various Artists

Stop the rort and start the talk

by Dave McArthur

Are all the reality shows on the box getting a bit boring? Too broke to buy anything off the Home channel? Has the intrigue gone out of the drama programmes? Do you feel there is something missing on the News channels? Don't fret. You can get it all on the other box in your house. Just set your armchair up down your hallway, put the spotlight on the switchboard and sit back. If your 'meter' box is outside, set up your barbecue under it and settle back in your deck chairs with friends and share the experience. There is a revolution going on but, sorry to tell you, you have not been invited to the fun. However you have been given the privilege of paying through the nose for it.

At first you will only notice a couple of clunky looking boxes, some wires, more spiders than live on the Nature channel and lots of dust. A little marked disc spinning in the meter or a tiny blinking light in the lumpy gadget beside it might catch your eye. If you listen carefully, some days you might hear something go click-clunk.

The next thing you will notice is ...well... not very much. So you are going to find it hard to believe it when I tell you that this dusty collection of gadgets links you to the life and welfare of the mountains and the plains and the skies of New Zealand. You are watching a few companies make massive and expensive decisions about that greater environment and energy use while you have been relegated to the passive role of just paying the bill. You are watching your house being designed, your appliances chosen for you and the school curriculum being shaped for your children.

You may find it even more difficult to believe you are observing a war that has been going on for over a century and it could end in the destruction of human civilisation, as we know it. Now that's epic entertainment for you. Bet you did not realise what a reality show you are part of.

After watching the switchboard for some days or minutes it may occur to ask yourself why you have never been very aware of it before. Why is it not part of your life like the cell phone and the TV remote? The answer is simple. The new owners of the switchboard would rather you did not notice its existence. And if you do notice it, they would rather you dismiss it as a cluster of life-endangering, black boxes that are the domain of "experts" somewhere out there.

But wait, I hear you say, I, or my landlord, owns my switchboard. Don't I own the switchboard in my house? Well, this will be news for you. You used to own it up till the 1990s but the National Government gave it away and it did not make prime news. Pity, because much of your future, and maybe lack of future, is being created in the unfolding switchboard drama and there is a bonanza worth many billions of dollars for the switchboard owners at stake.

To add a little twist to the tale, I will tell you that a gas conglomerate (NGC) now owns well over half of the 1.9 million switchboards in NZ and their control is expanding fast. Much of your NZ future lies in the hands of their bankers. Or as the Government will tell you, in the hands of The Market. More on The Market later.

Bonanza? This talk of bonanza? Yes it is hard to believe that the humble switchboard is key to a fortune and the future. The reason is the coming confluence of at least three great technologies and they are combining at the point in human history when oil and gas prices are set to rocket for our 6 billion people. The owners of the local wiring grid and the switchboards will be most able to ride the wave.

Communication Power

The first technology is PLC or Power Line Communication. This enables the local grid to transmit broadband information and entertainment to every electricity socket anywhere on your property. People have been able to talk to each other through the electricity wires for 50 years. However it has been limited to fairly primitive communications such as telling switches to turn heating systems on and off. Twenty-five years ago, the little community of Heathcote (5000 sw. bds) in Christchurch could even communicate to switch all the main-grid driven functions of a house from meter to meter. Another small community in Palmerston North (18000 sw. bds) were even dabbling with shared burglar alarm systems.

The big problem with using wires carrying large electrical current for communication has been 'radio interference' of various forms and now this problem has been nearly resolved. Soon it will be possible to transmit broadband along wires originally designed for transmitting Alternating Current electricity. All readers of this web article will understand what I am saying -it means being able to talk big scale.

Conversation Power

The second technology could possibly be described by the boring title of Intelligent Load Response Systems. "Smart metering" sounds spunkier but does not convey the whole picture. With "smart" electricity- monitors, you can check out the amounts and costs of your electricity usage as well as the load or demand for electricity on your local grid on your meter console or your computer. If you own your switchboard and belong to a community-owned network this will present great opportunities.

The downside of this technological revolution is that if someone else owns the switchboard in your house and the local grid, then they will be able to watch and control your patterns of electricity use for their purposes. (In NGC's case, they can optimise their gas sales.) They can dictate many of your life options. The implications for your privacy are interesting too as the Electricity Reforms were designed to transform you from being an electricity consumer with rights into a tradeable commodity. You, your consumption patterns, the switchboard in your home and the access to your property can now be traded to the merchant that will pay the most strategic price to you.

If you have ever watched a heart or brain monitor on the hospital dramas on TV you will know how the electrical activity is seen in spiky waves running across the screen. There is usually an underlying regularity to it but when the patient is sick, feverish or overexcited the waves go a bit berserk. Electricity demand on the national and local grid is a bit like that.

Now that speculators control and play the "electricity market", its state of health often looks pretty critical as trader greed and adrenalin rushes kick in. So you hear reports of "spot prices" reaching dollars per kiloWatt hour and theoretically it means the grid system is gasping for survival and the terminal alarms are about to start beeping.

Within very short periods demand for electricity can spike up - such as when everyone gets up at an ad break in the big game, puts the jug on for supper and goes to the loo, thus setting off the city water and sewage pumps as well. Demand for electricity goes back down as everyone sits down again. So you can get the price of electricity varying from two cents to twenty cents per kiloWatt hour within quite a short period.

We are not only in the age of "smart meters" now. We are in the age of "smart" home appliances that can pick up signals off the grid and turn themselves off when electricity is twenty cents a unit and resume activity when the price drops again. The time of day can be broadcast on the network so standby clocks are no longer needed. Turn the appliance on and it will be timed to the second. And don't worry - good systems will allow you to override them manually if necessary.

People Power

The third technology is DG or Distributed Generation. Right from the Edison's first commercial lighting circuit about 1890 in the home of J P Morgan, the powerful banker, bankers have seen grid-based electricity as the opportunity to control the world's wealth.

The first decade of electricity grids was dominated by the War of the Currents in which AC won out over DC. The inhumanity of the War is illustrated in one fascinating and macabre story in which the development of the Electric Chair was a key weapon of DC side. Once large grids were in place with bulk-electricity generators, the battle evolved into the Generation War in which bulk-electricity generators have fought to suppress distributed-electricity generators and other competing forms of energy transformers such as solar- based systems.

DG can take many forms. Essentially it involves small generators based close to the point at which the electricity is used. As such they can be relatively efficient in that little is lost in transmission. Owners of the bulk-electricity generators naturally don't like this as their principal shareholders make fortunes from controlling the bulk flow of electricity. In America they purchased major political broadsheets (commonly called "newspapers") and radio stations in order to shape state and national legislation controlling electricity generation, building codes, subsidy systems etc.

In New Zealand, all they have to do is buy a few big ads regularly. This flow of funds keeps our present generation of timid editors and politicians in line. The control of the bulk-generator sector of the media is far more complete than that though. They have achieved almost total colonisation of the concept of "power" and, more latterly, the awesome concept of "energy". Most media people and our universities are now hardwired to image grid-sourced electricity as power and energy itself without question now. So much for the possibility of NZ developing a Knowledge Economy.

Despite this overwhelming dominance, isolated innovations in DG have occurred. Be proud of one invention by Christchurch City Council. South Power (Orion) has developed a small gas-fired turbine called the Whispergen. Designed primarily to heat homes, it also generates small amounts of electricity. Orion and Meridian have just signed a $300 million to put 80,000 of them into the European Market.

Photovoltaic cell technology (transforming solar energy directly into electricity) is still expensive but the little research done this far indicates it is far cheaper than all the paraphernalia required to fight wars for the unsustainable use of oil and gas for bulk-electricity generation. Origin Energy in Australia, the new owners of Contact Energy, has just announced a "revolutionary" use of silicon. The research cost a fraction of what our Government plans to spend advertising its annual Budget or on a naval boat.

Is this just an Origin Energy PR gimmick like their name? I cannot say without knowing what else they get up to. BP makes much of their photovoltaic programme even as they pronounce it "horrendously expensive". Their PV programme is a fraction of their PR investment portraying themselves as the "green fill-up" and "beyond petroleum" and they invest 50 times its cost exploring for oil in the Arctic alone. In the 1970s solar-focussed research companies were bought up by the fossil fuel sector to "close the enemy down". And all the solar technology in the world is no use if building speculators can destroy our solar-based generating capacity in our urban areas anyway. As they are doing are doing on scale!

This small-scale electricity generation becomes very potent when developed in conjunction with hydrogen cell storage systems, "energy efficient" dwelling design that makes optimal use of solar energy/thermal barriers and where local communities control their grid. Add to the mix the arrival of broadband communication with smart appliances and switchboards that are able to talk to the grid and we have a revolution with a fortune at stake.

Just a note of caution - if you check out the eurekalert site above, remain mindful that any civilisation that attempts to base itself on all the hydrogen hype would be equally unsustainable as is our present one that is based on the nuclear hype of 50 years ago. The bulk of global agriculture is based on oil and gas sourced products now.

The NZ Board War

The Generation War took on a new phase in NZ in the 1990s - just as our local communities were developing truly sustainable technologies and strategies. The Wellington people were early casualties. Taranaki people have just succumbed. Aucklander's ownership of Vector is under siege. The bankers behind structures like Prime are fighting to get control of grids like Powerco and Vector before people catch an inkling of the real value it in the new age that I describe. Our Government and the media are not going to enlighten the good people of Auckland of Vector's vast potential value. The Market and its advisers are certainly not going to reveal its real value.

The NZ Herald is not going to tell them. They have just refused to publish, without reason, my short letter summarising the new unrecognised value from this great confluence of technology. Its journalists are paralysed by strictures that "control" and electricity use are the domain of different departments.

Look at Terry Hall's article Small shareholders have options in power plays. in the August 30 Dom Post.

Where does that give you an inkling of the vast potential transfers of corporate power and wealth from our communities? No wonder Wellington people got done like a dog by TransAlta et al. after following his advice. Where does the article give you a glimmer of the horror for our 6 billion souls implicit in the coming end our oil/gas based economy and our loss of serious options to avert a disaster?

The point is people who care not whether billions live or die designed our present electricity/gas system. Their lack of compassion is exemplified in the US State Department "Expendables" policy under Henry Kissinger. If it suits their short-term interests they will trigger genocide on scale as we witnessed in Cambodia and East Timor. They are manifest in the likes of Arthur Andersen and Co, principle architects of Enron, OnEnergy and our reformed electricity system. In 1999 they created a ten year plan for Monsanto to control 100% of the worlds seed resources i.e. global biomass energy. Similarly this consultancy created plans for Enron to control all the global gas and electricity resources and distribution within two decades.

So what stopped these totalitarian plans? Small communities. People like you and me in our local communities. They refused to buy shonky GE products. They banned unsustainable nuclear technology from their region. They refused to roll over and hand over their electricity grids despite intense media campaigns dumping on them. Of course, these communities are still vulnerable to massive intervention by national Government's to force them to comply. That is why we have the imposition on our country of something called The Electricity Market with COMPETITION. Or as the Electricity Commission's web-history prefers to put it.

"During the 1990s the electricity industry again experienced massive change through extensive reform initiated by the Government. Today, we enjoy a new competitive electricity market with separated line and generation operations and several large, private-sector players. Businesses and consumers are now positioned to benefit from real choice and competitive pricing."

I have not space here to show what a multiple lie this term is. However I have just posted a small survey of what the average consumer and their local community now "enjoys". (I did it as research for part of chapter 7 of my cartoon series Bonus Joules and the Knowledge Economy.) In the survey I use the household switchboard as my measuring stick. Read the survey. It's as hilarious as it is tragic. Before the Electricity Reforms, about sixty communities representing all regions in our country and several large corporations participated for most of a century in the electricity market. Now only a few large companies can participate in the market. In the massive 1993 and 1998 market interventions, 99% of Kiwis were disenfranchised and effectively excluded from it. We have never been under such rigid controls and had so few effective rights since the electricity industry began. This is despite the amazing "user friendly" technology available now.

Another prime architect of our reformed system is Professor William Hogan , described on the net as Research Director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group (HEPG) This group is " developing alternative strategies for a more competitive electricity market." Linda Clark on Nine to Noon struggled valiantly through an interview with him and at the end asked "Why do I always find the subject (the electricity market) fiendishly difficult and it makes my head hurt?"

Now, in case reading my little survey is making your head hurt too, read the hurried, unedited antidote I fired off to Linda in case she was wondering about her own sanity. My summary message was and is:

It is simple if you understand one thing: it is designed to make your head hurt. Understand this and life will become more simple. Your head will hurt less though your heart may ache a little.

It's the oldest trick in the book - keep them confused and they won't know where their wealth went. In the present illusion trick, we are told these old messy bits of wires and poles is a bit of a liability to communities and there are these kind companies (banks) out there that will take them off our hands. We are informed that the in new "free" electricity market we need "big boys" to look after our interests and they will do all the talking for us. And of course, they say they listen to us. Witness the large billboards of the Arthur Andersen clone in the form of SOE, Genesis Energy.

Listening and talking involves conversations. This is a two way process. Increasingly the ability of individuals and their communities to maintain an intelligent exchange with the grid is being limited. The technology is here for some real fun communication but we are stuck back in early Telecom days. You had to rent your phone and take whatever colour was dictated.

In the 1990s that phone rental was pure cashflow out of your pocket. The annual rental was more than the cost of a new modern phone and in many cases our rental phone was decades old. It certainly did not enable all the innovations like fax and answer machines.

Most electricity meters in NZ are two or four decades old too. Before the Reforms, many communities had plans to upgrade their member's switchboards with "smart" meters by 2000. The 19thC relics on the switchboards represent a dream cashflow for the lucky new owners - probably over half a billion dollars this last decade. And their ownership of the meters enables of the new owners to dictate so much else of your life.

To summarise your situation now, I will extend the telephone analogy.

Effectively you cannot own and must rent whatever equipment you and your community are given. The reality is that you can invest in as much 'smart' technology to run your home as you like but you and your community cannot negotiate directly with your local grid to make use of it. The fragmentation of the ripple response and integrated distribution system is like all the wires in the mouthpiece of your phone have been crossed. If you could talk, it would be on a rigid network controlled by the bankers of a few bulk-electricity generators rather than a system of region-based nodes made resilient by Distributed Generation like the internet system we enjoy.

At a time when the future of 6 billion souls relies on the creation of sustainable uses of energy, especially in the form of electricity, it is imperative we connect every talent we have in every community. Our local grid is a wonderful resource, especially if we enhance it with all the direct powers of the sun. Let us stop the rort and start the talk between communities and their local grid so peace at least has a chance.

Dave McArthur is the founder of the Bonus Joules website.