Power to the People

There’s something of an energy revolution going on. The power companies have seen the light and Wairarapa consumers are set to reap the rewards.

For years, utility companies have been the old engines of industry, chugging away in the background of our lives. Our only contact with them being when something goes wrong – oh and the dreaded bills, of course.

But recently a switch has been flicked – and the power companies have turned on the light. Now on the smart side of marketing, companies are talking direct to their customers. Many are also investing heavily in research and development, new energy solutions and energy management technology.

It is all quite exciting, especially for Wairarapa residents. Our region’s geography means we are often chosen for trials of new services. For example, Featherston, as the gateway to both Wairarapa and Wellington, depending on which way you are travelling, was one of the first towns in New Zealand to have an electric car charger installed by Powerco and ChargeNet NZ. That was in November 2016. In June 2017, a second charging station was installed in Masterton, and another one is planned for Eketahuna. Currently there are only seven such charging stations around the country.

“You have people who live in Wairarapa and commute to Wellington for work and Wellingtonians who like to visit the picturesque Wairarapa countryside on the weekends,” Nigel Barbour, Powerco’s chief executive, said at the time. “The Featherston fast charge station provides a sustainable transport option for those who travel between the two regions.”

Then there’s Genesis Energy’s solar trial in South Wairarapa. Around 130 homes and businesses are signed up to the trial, which aims to find out how people would use power if they could monitor it and generate some of it themselves, and what kind of prices they would pay. Participants have been provided with solar panels at discounted rates, software and, in some cases, batteries to store the energy.

Again, Wairarapa was chosen partly because of its location.

Marc England, Genesis chief executive, says South Wairarapa is close enough for regulators in Wellington to visit. He adds that Genesis already has a reasonable number of customers here, and the size of the South Wairarapa catchment meant the company could gather data from a good spread of consumers.

Powershop NZ, which allows customers to ‘shop around’ for power so they are not limited to one supplier, is another example of innovation in the energy sector. A stand-alone subsidiary of Meridian Energy, Powershop has been quietly operating a service centre in Masterton since 2009.

However, the recent opening of its chic new building in Kuripuni has pushed the company out into the community. Its bright pink signage and artwork are eye-catching, and Powershop employees zipping around town on the bright pink office scooter or electric bike are a common sight.

Stephen Griffin, head of retail operations at Powershop, says supporting the local community is vital for the company. “With our service centre now employing more than 100 Wairarapa residents, who look after our New Zealand and Australian operations, we feel very much part of the community.” He adds that, over the past three months, the company has been the fastest growing electricity retailer in Wairarapa. “This shows that locals are really getting behind their local power company.”

This kind of provincial visibility and local involvement is exactly what the power companies are after. There is talk that the energy sector is currently wide open to competition, not just from overseas energy companies but also from electric car manufacturers. There is a nervousness, too, that as competition increases, customers will become increasingly fickle, ever chasing the lowest price.

Never has it been more important for the energy industry to get to know its customers than now. Predictions are that we will continue to see more innovation in this sector – more new products, more investment in local resources and services, and better pricing. And while the energy companies battle for market share, we Wairarapa residents can sit back and enjoy the benefits.

Story by Lisa Carruthers