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Heather Roy's Diary: The Generation Gap

Heather Roy's Diary 30 May 2003

ACT is dedicated to enabling New Zealanders to have more opportunities and choices in their own lives. We promote political and economic freedom, strong families and communities, smaller government, and greater empowerment of individuals.

The Generation Gap

New Zealand is in the midst of a power crisis, and the prospect of losing water heating looms for many people. The Prime Minister isn't worried for herself, as she recently explained that she uses gas for heating. Talk of electricity cuts have been muted this week, with Parliament in recess and no Question Time for the Prime Minister and Minister of Energy to be asked tricky questions by the Opposition.

The causes of a power crisis are complicated and are subject to much official obfuscation. The reason cold showers loom is that water heating is the one type of electricity consumption that power distributors have in their hands. It can be turned off by remote, 'ripple', control. This process is a bit of a lottery for the public, however, as some people have gas-fired water heating and many of those who have electrical water heating have a broken ripple switch. It is possible to opt out of ripple control by paying more for your water heating. Another possibility is that electricity generation simply falls below consumption, and then the voltage will drop causing a "brown out" as electrical appliances struggle to work on reduced power. How things shape up from here depends on how much it rains but, if it is dry, hydroelectric dams will have no water to drive their turbines as lake levels fall below operating levels.

If this all sounds familiar, it is because it was only in 2001 that we had our last power crisis. As Oscar Wilde would have said under the same circumstances: "To have one power crisis when Minister of Energy is unfortunate but to have two looks like carelessness." The effort to apportion blame is a high-risk game but Pete Hodgson knows that his job could be on the line. Hence the current campaign to blame Max Bradford.

The reason lakes are falling is simply that water is being drawn off to generate power at a faster rate than rainfall replaces it. When spring comes, the mountain snow will melt, and the lakes will be replenished - but while rainfall remains low we face a long cold winter. In the background to all of this it should be noted that New Zealand obtains 60 percent of its power from hydroelectricity, and the amount of water that can be stored in reserve is limited. The question has been asked as to whether or not the other means of generating electricity have been efficiently used. The Huntly thermal power stations burn coal and natural gas, but have had a low level of coal stocks. We are currently importing large quantities of coal from Indonesia and Australia, although Solid Fuel New Zealand has said it can meet our own requirements - apparently we have around 1,000 years of supply of our own much better quality coal, but it must be mined to be of any use.

The demand for electricity has been growing at about 150 megawatts per year, and much of our generating stock is getting old. The only way to resolve this problem is to build new stations. Unfortunately, the Government has managed to get itself cornered in a bureaucratic nightmare. The most obvious next step would be to build coal-powered thermal stations - but coal stations produce a lot of carbon dioxide, and New Zealand has signed the Kyoto Treaty, which commits us to reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. New Zealand does not produce much carbon dioxide because of our extensive use of hydroelectric power, but the Kyoto protocol commits us to reducing it further, regardless of our low starting point. That means that we could end having to buy "carbon credits". Wind energy has been suggested as an alternative, but windmills remain an expensive source of power despite considerable advances in the technology.

The Government's solution is to build power stations and keep them as spare capacity. This is an expensive solution - power stations cost big money and if they aren't used they produce no return. However they can't be run continuously because they will produce carbon dioxide, thus breaching our Kyoto commitments. We will have large power stations sitting idle most of the year. The Government says the market is inefficient, so central planning is on the agenda.

Ideology versus Pragmatism

It was revealed that two heart patients died while awaiting surgery in Wellington. Both had been admitted twice for surgery, and had twice been sent home, dying while awaiting their third attempts. Meanwhile the private Wakefield Hospital, a stones-throw away, had theatres and surgeons available. They could have operated immediately once these patients' surgery was cancelled in the public system. Wakefield Hospital's contract was cancelled two years ago. Labour has a philosophical objection to private contracting with the public system, but I doubt these patients would have had any such objection.

ACC Medical Misadventure

This week, the Government released a consultation document regarding changes to ACC Medical Misadventure. Currently, a patient must prove that their health provider is guilty of medical misadventure to gain compensation. The incentive is wrong, and ACC is looking at changing the emphasis back to a 'no-fault' system. Although the emphasis is right, it is anticipated there will be more claims accepted. This will cost more to run, and the funding will need to be increased. This may well see an increase in the earners premium - as well as an opening of the floodgates for claims. ACT will be watching.

Heather Roy is an ACT List MP. She was elected to Parliament in July 2002. Heather is a former Physiotherapist and Medical Research Co-ordinator. She was also Publicity Officer for the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. Her portfolio areas are Health, ACC, Women's Affairs, Youth Affairs, Senior Citizens, Arts Culture and Heritage and Internal Affairs. Heather is married to Duncan, a Psychiatrist and they have 5 children. Se was attracted to ACT because of the principles of freedom, choice and personal responsibility.

If you would like to comment on anything in this weeks diary please send an email to scott.gilmore@parliament.govt.nz

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