Power companies generate less for Govt coffers

By Brian Fallow

At a time when the Government could do with the money, the combined fiscal contribution from the state-owned electricity generators looks set to fall.

If the three companies adhere to the dividend policies in the statements of corporate intent they agreed with their shareholding ministers - Meridian 65 per cent, Mighty River 50 per cent and Genesis 40 per cent - the Government can expect to receive some $178 million in dividends from their latest profits, less than half the $383 million it got over the past year.

The power crisis had different effects on the three companies, reflecting the make-up of their generation assets.

Meridian Energy, whose generation portfolio consists almost entirely of hydro schemes in the South Island, suffered a steep $113 million drop in net earning to $128 million for the year to June from $241 million in 2006-07.

Mighty River Power saw output from its hydro dams on the Waikato fall 9 per cent. But it derives nearly 40 per cent of its power from geothermal sources and the gas-fired plant at Southdown, and managed a 14 per cent increase in net profit to $111 million from $97 million the year before.

Genesis, whose assets include the big coal-fired plant at Huntly and a brand new gas-fired one next door, lifted net profit 11 per cent to $99 million from $89 million the year before.

Meridian was hit by the fact that the first half of 2008 was the second driest on record in the catchment of its hydro lakes.

It meant that at peak of the crisis it was getting less than half the power it sold from its own generation and had to pay high spot prices for the rest. Those prices might have been higher still if the Electricity Commission had not offered power into the market from its reserve plant at Whirinaki for less than the cost of the diesel it burned.

But Meridian's chief executive, Tim Lusk, indicated the company is unwavering its commitment to an all-renewables strategy. "It's in our DNA," he said.

Its capital expenditure is rising steeply - $434 million this year from $264 million last year and $184 million the year before.

"Overall we plan around $1.2 billion of capex over the next three years, primarily wind [projects]," chief financial officer Neal Barclay said.

The company is untroubled by the turmoil in credit markets. Its gearing is low - a net debt to net debt plus equity ratio of 18 per cent - and it has $650 million in untapped funding lines.

Lusk said Meridian had installed 80,000 smart meters in the Christchurch market, bringing it close to the critical mass needed to begin to offer innovative services for consumers.

Mighty River Power's focus for new generation is on geothermal steam, which already provides about a fifth of its electricity.

Geothermal power has the advantage of begin continuous, unlike wind for example, while (almost) avoiding the carbon costs which fossil-fuel plants will incur when the emissions trading scheme (ETS) starts in 2010.

Mighty River will need to cover emissions from its Southdown plant. "However, our portfolio will on balance benefit from the higher [energy] prices associated with the ETS," chief executive Doug Heffernan said.

Genesis, by contrast, will have to cover between 3.5 million and 5.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year. At a carbon price of $40 a tonne that would cost it between $140 millon and $220 million a year.

Genesis chairman Brian Corban said the reliability and generation volume of Huntly's 25-year-old coal units and new combined cycle gas turbine plant had proven critical in meeting the country's energy needs over the winter.

The company's generation in the year to June was 14 per cent up on the year before.

Mixed fortunes
* Meridian Energy's profit down 47 per cent to $128 million, due to water shortages in its hydro lakes.
* Mighty River Power's profit up 14 per cent to $11 million as the Waikato drought was offset by geothermal and gas-fired generation.
* Genesis Energy's profit rose 11 per cent to $99 million as Huntly kept the lights on.

- NZ Herald

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