I have been reading and appreciating Robert Gottliebsen’s ability to drill down into issues since the mid-1970s, when he was the Chanticleer on the back page of A Certain Newspaper and I was issues manager of a large, struggling manufacturing business living in Collins House, Melbourne.

His commentary on the gathering storm for federal Labor (Gillard's perfect power storm, March 28) is well up to the standard I've come to expect and there are some additional facts about electricity that go to support his concerns.

In a paper commissioned by the Australian Energy Market Commission for its 'Power of Choice' inquiry into demand management, consultants Ernst & Young have produced some salutary data on consumption – unfortunately, hardly anyone in Canberra seems to have read it.

Ernst & Young have tracked electricity use from 1973-74 (when Messrs Gottliebsen, Orchison and millions of others were working under the Whitlam government) to 2008-09 (when power use peaked before the global economic crisis really bit).

Most of the media discussion today revolves around household use of electricity and the general unhappiness with the body politic on pricing pain, but the residential sector is only a part of the story – and, except for peak demand, not the largest part.

Ernst & Young report that:

– Total electricity supply rose from 74 terawatt hours in 1973-74 to 242 TWh in 2008-09 (and has now fallen back to 236 TWh).

– The manufacturing share has risen over 25 years from 24.3 TWh to 66.9 TWh, an annual increase of 2.8 per cent, and accounted for 28 per cent of the market in 2008-09 but is now falling.

– The commercial and public services sector’s power needs have risen even faster – from 9.4 TWh to 57.2 TWh, an annual average of 5 per cent, with demand accelerating 38 per cent in the past decade and now accounting for 24 per cent of the market.

– Household requirements have risen from 19.08 TWh to 60.1 TWh, an average rise of 3 per cent a year, including a 21 per cent increase in the past decade – accounting for 25 per cent of the market.

The balance is made up of agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining (7 per cent), construction, electricity, gas, water and waste services (14 per cent – what do you think power stations run on?), and transport, postal services and warehousing.

Ernst & Young point out that the manufacturing sector has fallen back to where it was in the late 1970s, having got up to as high as a 35 per cent share in the late 1980s and early 1990s, "reflective of a general trend towards less energy-intensive industries” in this country, while the commercial and public services sector is heading towards doubling the share it held in the Whitlam era.

Mining, not surprisingly, is on the rise and the household share, perhaps to the surprise of many, is actually lower now than it was when Whitlam ruled the roost.

The wholes shebang has ridden on the back of the black sheep so far as the environmental movement is concerned – black and brown coal generation and gas-fired supply.

Cheap, abundant coal, of course, has been a key factor and coal-fired generation output has risen 54 per cent in a quarter century.

In recent years use of gas has shot up but it still makes up only 15 per cent of actual production – compared with 8 per cent for renewable energy (mostly long-serving hydro-electric power).

Ernst & Young also contribute a telling statistic to the focus on productivity.

They find that electricity consumption as a proportion of GDP has risen in Australia from 358 megawatt hours per million dollars under Whitlam in 1973 to 487 MWh under Kevin Rudd in 2009, an average increase of 1 per cent a year.

By contrast, the consultants say, the OECD average in 2009 was 352 MWh, an average annual fall of 0.1 per cent since 1973.

The reason for the smell of burning rubber on the electricity road today, however, is not down to wholesale energy prices, nor the bad-mouthed renewable energy target and other green gimmicks, and, despite all the noise, it will not be hugely changed by Julia Gillard’s carbon price.

The issue is the need to spend huge sums on power networks. Need being the operative word.

One can see this clearly in the breakdown of costs the AEMC has recently provided to the CoAG energy ministers.

As we are all focused on the terrible towelling Labor got in south-east Queensland (as well as a kicking in the other 97 per cent of the state), let’s look at the AEMC’s figures for Energex’s franchise area (essentially Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast).

Even without a carbon tax, says the commission, the trajectory of retail prices for people living in Energex’s area is up from 19.39 cents per kilowatt hour in 2010-11 to 24.86 cents in 2013-14 (or 26.78 cents with the carbon tax).

The RET, the mandatory gas scheme and other bits and bobs of state and federal environmental stuff will contribute just under one cent per kilowatt hour in 2013-14.

To this you can add 7.47 cents for wholesale energy (or 9.46 cents under a carbon price).

The big ticket item is the networks charge – a shade under 13 cents in 2013-14 for transmission plus distribution compared with 9.68 cents in 2010-11.

This may sound like pocket shrapnel until you multiply it by 8,000 to 10,000, which is the sort of kilowatt hour consumption that is not unusual in the affluent sub-tropics.

Then it adds up to $400 or so – and even Campbell Newman’s "thanks for your vote” gift of $120 by freezing the standard tariff doesn’t really salve that burn.

As Robert Gottliebsen, and some of those who posted comments on his commentary, point out, the hurt is greater for small business and bigger business. Not least in an area like Energex’s franchise where commerce and public services are a substantial segment.

You can paint similar pictures for other parts of the country and the pollies, federal and state, are a long way from addressing the pain to the satisfaction of their constituents.

The really hard part is that, no matter how they twist, turn and spin, prices are going up, not down – which underscores the issue of all of us becoming a whole lot more efficient with how we use electricity.

And, because I will be yelled at if I don’t add it, the situation highlights the need for politicians to devise a sensible way to address the problems of those many thousands of households who can’t pay today’s power bill – never mind the one that’s coming in two years’ time.

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Well put Keith. Often I think energy costs, become political debates. This, misses the point totally (Pinpointing the source of power pain, July 18).
Reducing energy costs, is for me, the most important excercise in economics. Yes even more important than current debt levels.
Off the shelf gas technology, to produce autonomous supply, should be looked at by retail and office builders. Please refer to the Sydney local governments, plans for automous energy, by 2014.
The Federal government has no gas policy, despite the fact that Australia has more (proven) gas than Qatar. Hey! lets sell all our gas to people with the brains to use it!
What frustrates me, is that, as you correctly, pointed out, that electricity prices, hurt, everyone, not just businesses but pensioners.
Is, the government blind to the fact, that the difference between an advanced economy and a third world economy, is energy availibilty?
Energy costs are hurting our economy and causing inflation, all governments have to treated with contempt, if they do not understand this.
Keith, an interesting contribution (Pinpointing the source of power pain, October 17). However, you neglect to mention that the 13c/kw rise in retail electricity bills for Queenland is due to rampant gold plating of networks which Queensland (along with most state governments) have allowed to be paid for by consumers. Then why is the reverse about to happen in South Australia? In S.A., wind power accounted for around 26 per cent of energy supply in the year to the end of July and one in five houses have solar PV panels. The effect of renewable energy (both wind and solar panels) is that it has created a "merit order effect" which has created downward pressure on the wholesale price of power. The best story on this phenomenon is Giles Parkinson's report in Renew Economy "Wind, solar force energy price cuts in South Australia" (3/10/12)? He points out that the wholesale component of electricity is "at or around their lowest levels since the creation of the National Electricity market more than a decade ago, yet retail electricity bills have soared, thanks to billions of dollars in network spending which is now being heavily scrutinized.”
Your article does a lot of hand-wringing but avoids highlighting the dinosaurs in power industry: coal fired power and expensive distribution networks. Localised generation using primarily solar and wind energy (with efficient gas turbine backup) are the viable technologies for the future and are ready NOW. This power can be distributed with highly efficient new DC transmission lines and be supplemented with rooftop solar which has now dropped to a price approaching $1 per watt installed. The problem is that entrenched coal based interests can see the change coming and are trying to delay the demise of their inefficient, polluting technology. Instead of fear mongering, it’s time for commentators such as yourself and Bob Gottliebson to show readers that the price rises are manipulated and have no sound basis. Perhaps then you could show them that there is a new way forward.