Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Thinking outside the town square

The Vector chief is challenging traditional ideas on progress, writes Fran O'Sullivan

The Hobson St substation was designed to sit well with the environment, technology and customers.
The Hobson St substation was designed to sit well with the environment, technology and customers.

Future-proofing is top of mind for Vector chief executive Simon Mackenzie these days.

It's not just the challenge of making sure the executive team at Auckland's prime networks business is across the Unitary Plan and ensuring Vector can service Auckland Council's aspirations to increase density within the city.

But Mackenzie is also questioning whether Auckland's mantra of wanting to be the "world's most liveable city" is fit-for-purpose.

The Vector boss is concerned that there is not sufficient hard focus among key Auckland decision-markers on economic growth and lifting productivity.

"How do we promote internationally to get businesses and commerce starting here?" he asks, suggesting we should engage with other cities that have solved problems in a non-traditional way.

He emphasises that Auckland is expensive. How the city stacks up from an affordability perspective globally is also important.

"Liveability has to be affordable - it's not just housing . . . it's not just feeling comfortable about walking around in a nice environment.

"We need more economic growth, as opposed to just migrant growth, to fill holes in the core businesses."

Mackenzie's own business exposes him to the rapid technological shifts that are disrupting traditional business and leads him to say that Auckland Council should also challenge its traditional thinking by asking questions about whether expensive rail solutions are the answer when electric buses could well be the way of the future. "Why not have both in place?"

Vector's business is complex. It owns and runs Greater Auckland's electricity network, has a natural gas distribution network supplying more than 30 towns and cities across the North Island, provides high speed fibre optic data connections, and is responsible for the ownership and management of electricity and gas meters to more than 800,000 homes and businesses across New Zealand and a rapidly expanding solar power business.

Mackenzie says his current priority is to work with council to understand the density aspirations with regard to housing and how it impacts on Vector's network design.

"It then comes down to what customers are looking for," he says.

"They are wanting choice . . . they want to be in control, they want to understand what is going on. They don't necessarily want to be computer programmers, but they want it at their fingertips."

Smartphones have enabled online solutions to be delivered, such as information about what is happening at customers' premises through metering and so forth.

Mackenzie says Vector is also working with developers - including Ngati Whatua - to raise their awareness and help them deliver cost-effective solutions based on the latest technology. And it is trialling retrofits using LED lighting to reduce costs for customers.

"It's important to understand that, through technology, customers now have much more choice," says Mackenzie. For instance, residential customers are moving to put in place their own water storage systems to reduce costs. What happens when they move to adopt smart systems to manage power usage and costs, and dual-fuelled electric vehicles which have battery storage for power up a car to drive 100km?

'There's not a great deal of people racing out there to buy an electric vehicle, but they might go more mainstream."

As with moves to develop Auck land's waterfront, design excellence is a key part of Vector's mantra.

The recently opened substation - which Vector developed with Transpower on a prominent Hobson St site to reinforce power supply to the Auckland CBD - bears no resemblance to the traditional electricity substations that have long marred NZ's urban landscapes.

It had to be integrated into the city in a number of ways, says Mackenzie. "How it sits with the environment; how it sits with technology and how it sits with customers."

The new substation consists of four buildings to house the two substations, and a tunnel. The design was complex, with old retaining walls having to be incorporated into the new building and the mew tunnel undercrossing existing "live" tunnels.

The substation had to be compatible with an urban environment and the project team worked closely with the Auckland Urban Design Panel to come up with a design that fitted into the environment.

Adding to the pressure was the fact that construction had to get under way during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

- NZ Herald

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