The retailers in Lower Cuba Street whose electricity was cut off yesterday morning won’t want to be reminded of the strange fact that our city’s electricity company is 100 per cent owned by two companies in Hong Kong.
Cheung Kong Infrastructure Ltd and Power Assets Holding limited together own 100 per cent of Wellington Electricity, the company which pulled the plug yesterday. Both are members of the Cheung Kong group of companies and are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The group includes nine listed companies with a combined market capitalisation of HK$600 billion.
Cuba Street retailers are also not likely to be consoled by a message on the website of the Wellington electricity company:
As your electricity distributor, Wellington Electricity is responsible for the performance of the local electricity network and for responding to any problems that may occur. No electricity system is 100 per cent reliable and no electricity distributor can guarantee you an uninterrupted supply – some outages are unavoidable as portions of our network are exposed to events beyond our reasonable control, like storms and car accidents. The cost of 100 per cent reliability would be far beyond what you might reasonably be expected to pay. For some customers, a short power outage may be a mere inconvenience. For others, an interruption may cause commercial losses. We will respond as quickly as possible to fix any supply problems, but it is important that you understand and consider the level of risk associated with an occasional interruption to your electricity supply….In case of a Power Outage in your area, please call your electricity retailer.
There are two types of power outages which can affect the Wellington Electricity network and interrupt customers’ supply: planned outages and unplanned outages. A planned outage occurs when electrical lines or equipment have to be temporarily taken out of service for repair or to allow network maintenance, alterations or augmentation. Unless undertaken in an emergency situation, a planned outage will be scheduled in advance, and affected customers will be made aware of the outage before it occurs. Every effort is made to undertake planned outages during times which will least inconvenience customers, but in some instances this is not always possible….
It seems to have been a planned outage yesterday. But the DomPost reports that businesses weren’t notified. And almost all of them were forced to close, on one of the busiest days of the week.
The five-hour power cut was described by David Blackmore, landlord of the James Smith complex, as being caused by “the mind-numbing stupidity of some moron at the power company”.
The company doesn’t have a good record of communication with Wellingtonians. There’s nothing on its website about yesterday’s issues. And according to the DomPost’s report this morning, the company’s spokesman – who’s blaming the power retailers – is based in Australia. Which seems to be a crazy situation.
There were also communications problems with the electricity company during last June’s storms. It seems to have been another communications failure in Lower Cuba Street yesterday.
How did it happen that Wellington’s electricity company was sold to owners in Hong Kong?
Till the last decade of the 20th century, the Wellington City Council owned its own electricity department. But in 1992 the council decided to sell the company. Canadian-owned TransAlta first acquired 49 per cent (when Fran Wilde was mayor) and bought the remaining 51 per cent (during the Blumsky mayoralty.) The Canadians onsold the company in 1998 to a Kansas banking group, and the Americans sold it to Vector in 2003. In July 2008, the network was sold to its present Hong Kong owners.
As Sue Kedgley has told us, the chairman of the Hong Kong companies is one of the richest and most powerful men in Asia - Li Ka-shing. According to Forbes magazine, he is the ninth richest man on Earth, and has an estimated wealth of $31 billion. He’s probably not giving any attention to the dissatisfactions of his customers in Wellington.
Too late: Wellington Electricity apologises