December 12, 2013  |  Second Reading

Energy Legislation Amendment (General) Bill 2013

Mr HOWARD (Ballarat East)— I wish to make my contribution in regard to the energy legislation that is before the house, in which the government is proposing to make some changes relating to the introduction of flexible pricing policies, which clearly relate to the implementation of the smart meter project that has been carried out across the state. In doing so I note that it is interesting how things change.

We on this side of the house remember how strongly the coalition objected to the smart meter program when it was in opposition only a few years ago. Its members made all sorts of suggestions that the program would be stopped if they came to office and so on. But we know what happened when the coalition came to government. Suddenly this project, which those opposite were so much against — like so many other projects — went ahead. In fact not only did the coalition go ahead with the smart meter rollout, but it ended up being quite a supporter of the system.

The coalition went ahead with it for good reason, I might add. Members on both sides of the house have spoken about the good reason for the smart meter system eventually being supported by the coalition. We know there are substantial costs associated with the construction of power stations across the state and indeed across the country. If we can encourage more power users to utilise their power in non-peak periods, the number of new power stations needed and the expense associated with constructing them can be reduced. We would then see a more balanced usage of the power that is available.

As I said, the coalition government ended up being quite a supporter of the smart meter power system. In fact the former coalition energy minister issued threats that people who did not want to have smart meters connected in their houses would have their power disconnected and that fines would be applied.

He made several threats to ensure that the rollout of the smart meter system continued and that people who had objections had no avenue to object. That being the case, we now have a smart meter system in place.

In my own home the smart meter was connected only last week, so I have recently seen the brochure that was delivered advising me about the smart meter system and the opportunity it provides for flexible pricing. Like so many other people, my family will be looking at the information on the flexible pricing system, which naturally enough will probably be confusing, as it is when there are a number of power retailers available, even to work out how to assess the information and understand the offers. It is a good thing that the Essential Services Commission has set up the Your Choice website.

I have been pleased to be able to use the Your Choice website, and I encourage others to look at it to determine what options they have in terms of purchasing power and determining who might be the best retailer for them. It would be the same for gas retailer options. I have been able to use that site to establish what I think are the best options for me. I have also advised many of my constituents to use it, and they have done so and have been happy that they have been able to make informed decisions about electricity or gas retailers.

Now we have this new layer of information being made available by energy retailers about their flexible pricing offers, so it is perfectly appropriate that the government wants to see all energy retailers make available to the Essential Services Commissioner their proposed flexible pricing policies and that they should be put onto a website. When I read the second-reading speech it seemed a little strange to me that the minister was going to nominate a website but had not done so in the legislation.

The speech says that if the minister does not nominate a website the Your Choice website will be used. I presume the minister will determine whether it will go on the Your Choice website or an alternative website. Either way I hope we see that information become available quickly to ensure that people have an easy and reliable way of comparing those flexible pricing policies.

I understand the My Power Planner online tool is already available and will help customers to understand some of the aspects of flexible pricing options that they will be able to take advantage of. That will certainly provide greater value to them. I trust that in the coming year more and more residents will come to understand how to access information from their smart meters. That was one of the issues that people were misinformed about in the rollout of the meters. They believed they would also receive a panel they could read to understand how their energy usage was going.

Those sorts of facilities are available from some of the retailers at varying costs, and they certainly would help people to take an interest in their power usage. There are a range of other activities the government can take to educate and support people in understanding their power usage and to think about how they can move it away from the peak periods.

It is also interesting when you look at those peak period issues to see that we used to think that peak periods were on cold winter evenings when people got home from work and put on their heating, often directly using electricity or involving the use of electricity, and they would also cook their meal. While clearly that is part of the peak period, the highest-use period now occurs on hot days when people are using air conditioners, which have a very high level of energy consumption.

We need to ensure that we get the message out to people that with some appliances, whether they be air conditioners or electric heaters that have a very high level of energy consumption, they could think about how they might change their reliance on those appliances, especially at peak times, and thereby reduce their own electricity costs, while the overall usage of electricity across the energy grid would be better balanced. As planners and as responsible leaders in our community we really want to see that. We want to be able to rely on our energy supplies into the future. We want to ensure that we do not expend more energy than we need to.

In relation to concern about climate change there are lots of good reasons for people to reduce their use of electricity anyway. People should find passive ways, such as through house design and other low-cost measures, of reducing their energy consumption. There are good reasons to pursue that action, and there are a lot of services and information to help people reduce their energy consumption. I want to see that continue, and I am happy to support this legislation, which will also provide consumers with further information and protection with regard to the new flexible pricing policies. I hope people will feel comfortable about how they can gain information about the pricing system and will utilise it to reduce their bills and their overall consumption, particularly at peak periods. There are opportunities to do that, and I hope with the passage of this bill and other actions that government and non-government entities, including the electricity retailers, can take, we will see significant progress in this area.