Solid Energy chairman John Palmer says his company is a riskier proposition for small investors than other energy state-owned enterprises tagged for sale.

Solid's biggest earnings were from overseas and therefore vulnerable to fluctuations of commodity markets and the value of the New Zealand dollar, he said.

The power generators and retailers that could be partially sold if National forms the next Government had more certainty about their earnings.

"The opportunity that they [the power companies] would provide is certainty for household mum and dad investors ... with reasonably predictable cashflows," he said.

Advertisement

"For the retail investors it [Solid] will be a less secure investment than a 'gentailer' but for those who are looking for growth assets it will be pretty compelling. It's a risk and reward question."

Palmer said the "gentailers", Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy, had more predictable cash flows in an established market with peers already listed.

"With a Contact or Trustpower pricing of the assets and the earnings is pretty clear in the New Zealand market."

National has not released a possible sales timetable but preparatory work is well under way. If it wins the November 26 election the first of the SOEs could be up to 49 per cent sold by the end of next year.

Palmer is also chairman of Air New Zealand, already partly listed but in line to be further privatised.

He said it made more sense for Solid Energy to be the last cab off the rank.

"Providing opportunities for the 'gentailers' to be at the front of the queue makes more sense because that's more appropriate for the retail appetite and for Solid Energy to come on the market slightly behind those."

Solid is redeveloping existing mines, prospecting for more coal and has new energy projects including coal seam gas and underground gasification at different stages of development. It also hopes to use its vast lignite fields in Southland for a coal-to-fertiliser plant and possibly a coal-to-diesel plant in projects which the company has said could top $10 billion.

Palmer said the scale of investment needed meant it was not appropriate for the Government - with 100 per cent ownership - to bear all the risk.

"We have quite ambitious plans for growth and all of that requires capital. Any sane analysis of the business drivers for that would come to a conclusion that it is simply not sensible for the Government to take on all of that risk when the government balance sheet and finances are under some stress."

Solid Energy had been able to finance projects and core developments on the West Coast off its balance sheet, but when funding growth from from profits, dividend suffered.

"You can't have it both ways. Projects that we're talking about into the future are billon-dollar projects and to fund that off our existing balance sheet or the Government and the taxpayer taking that risk doesn't make sense."

Business commentator Arthur Lim said continued strong demand for coal from China and India would drive growth at the company.

"Solid Energy has got the excitement factor. It has built up good credentials and it has the size," he said.

A strategist at JBWere, Bernard Doyle, said New Zealand share investors were already well aware of Asia's role in driving growth and many had experience in the Australian resources sector.

There would also be international investor interest if Solid Energy was partially privatised.

"A commodity producer always generates a lot of international interest. I wouldn't understate the appeal of a commodity play. People are aware of these being a play on the emerging economy growth."

Doyle said there were marked differences between the disastrous Pike River experience and Solid's existing coal mines.

"The key distinction was Pike River was an asset that was not producing. Even a relatively unseasoned investor in resources knows there's a big difference between a commodity producer and a business that is pre-production," he said.

"Irrespective of the disaster it was a tough road. It was complex and a single asset."

THE COMPANY
* Solid Energy has four opencast and two underground coal mines on the West Coast, in Southland and near Huntly.
* 70 per cent of its coal is used in steel-making and half of total production is exported
* New developments include briquette making, underground coal gasification and coal seam gas, and projects such as coal-to-fertiliser and coal-to-liquid fuels.