Why utilities need to be back in public hands

After 30 years of infrastructure privatisation in Australia, it’s time we put critical utilities (Energy, Water, Telecoms, Rail, et al) back in the hands of the public. While this may sound somewhat draconian and even semi-communist, right now it is the most capitalist move we could make, and our future depends on it. I spoke about it today on radio – you can listen here.

An Infrastructure Reset – Show me a rich country, and I’ll show you rich infrastructure. It’s what modern economies are built on and always will be. We are currently moving through a 200 year shift which involves an entire reset of the physical world around us. In telecoms we are rapidly moving to optic fibre and 5G. Energy is shifting away from coal to renewables (primarily solar) and we need to build out an ‘energy internet’ to replace our ageing grid. All cars will be electric in 8 years time and we’ll require highly distributed charging facilities where ever a car parks.  Every economy in the world, that wants to compete globally, must now build out, connected, post industrial infrastructure.

Natural Monopolies – There are certain things which are what economists call Natural Monopolies. These are industries where the most efficient way to serve a market is with a single operator or system. This is most often the case with large national based infrastructure. For example, it doesn’t make any sense economically to have 2 competing sets of national railways alongside each other, to have 2 sets or power lines, or wireless competitive 5g towers serving the same geography. This idea isn’t new, and goes way to back to Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations. And while it would be dangerous to have infrastructure businesses that are privately owned not to having any competition, if they’re publicly owned, and regulated we can remove problems associated with monopoly operators.

Competing interests & political instability – When things like ‘energy‘ are owned by private firms, their imperative is maximise profits and serve their shareholders, not their customers. At a time when we should be shifting to new forms of infrastructure, privately owned utilities create misaligned incentives in the market place. This will be to our long term detriment in the Australian economy. The NBN is a classic example. At a time when NBN is being rolled out (public), it has to compete with the 5G networks of Telstra (private). If we had a single telecoms infrastructure provider, we’d have a chance to build out a singular, worlds best network. Instead, what we have is a piecemeal financial basket case. We, the tax payers, are the losers.

I  truly believe the leadership crisis we are currently facing in Australia (today and over the past decade), is partially because of the problems of vested interests trying to influence the public policy. We have a population that want to move towards renewable energy, yet factions within political parties are influenced by the coal lobby and short term financial interests. The net result is that leaders can’t make the decisions they need to for a future proof economy and we end up with a dysfunctional government.

The benefits of publicly owned utilities – Crucially, this idea isn’t something which sounds fanciful, but just isn’t possible financially. The investment markets have already priced in the truth of what I’m talking about here – that is, the cost of many infrastructure assets are at all time lows. Telstra has a yield of 7% and new coal fired power plants are literally un-investable. Hence, these infrastructure assets could be taken back into public hands at, or below the cost of capital to acquire them. If we did this, the Government would have the ability to build out what the people actually want, and what the future needs. These renewed Government owned enterprises could serve as future employment training grounds in critical skills arenas and we could re-engage our long lost technical apprenticeship model of employment. And let’s not forget that having infrastructure which is world class would facilitate startups to compete globally. This would benefit both the tax base (remember the Gov has a 30% Joint Venture with every business via tax) and open up export potential. What we learn building this out, could then be built in other countries. (software & hardware)

This program might be something we just need to do for 20 years before going private again. But what is clear that our telecoms are a mess, our energy system is a mess and we need new infrastructure quickly if we want to remain wealthy and relevant.

Just this week I was in Sri Lanka and they already have 5G well underway. Emerging economies are building out tomorrow, while wealthy countries like Australia mess around with yesterday’s technology to keep the rich and influential happy. It’s the great squander of our times. One of the reasons the government won’t serve us in Australia, is that we don’t own the assets the decisions are being made around. Maybe if we took the assets back, they’d have to make sure they run these industries properly or they wont get voted back in.

Radical times, require radical action.

Why energy will be free in under 10 years

It’s easy to forget how many things we used to pay for that we now get to use and consume for free.
Energy is very close to becoming one of them. The global economy is very quickly transforming to an all electric economy. Yes, for both your house and your car. Very soon we’ll only have to pay a one off set up fee to go entirely off grid and generate all the energy (electricity) we need, for free. It will come from the worlds most powerful energy source, the original fossil fuel called the sun. I hear you saying a one off set up free isn’t free, and that’s true, but this is where the economy is changing and catching many existing industrial companies off guard.


In the past the factors of production were all centralised: Factories, Retail Stores, Power Plants, Media Channels, Computers. Sector by sector, they are being decentralised as technological advances allow these tools to be cheap enough for us to access them or own them for a very low cost. The super computer in your pocket comes to mind, or the factory you don’t have to own as you access manufacturing capacity via Alibaba. They way it will work is in 3 simple steps:

  1. Set up solar panels + Battery storage  = Price X
  2. When Energy bill > 20% of Price X
  3. Finance will fund the off grid set up. (cost of money around 7% for unsecured loans + principal repayment)

It will be much like what happened with our shift from the dumb phone to the smart phone. We have a contract to pay off the hardware (which actually includes hidden interest costs), but in this case, the hardware is paid for by the money we’d normally be paying the electricity company with a quarterly bill. But now it will go to the companies setting up a mini power plants in our homes.

So where are we today with the cost of going ‘off grid’ and having enough energy to power our homes?

The average home in Melbourne, Australia (where I live) uses 16 kwH per day. In order to set up a solar PV, inverter and battery system which can provide this level of energy on a daily basis, in all weather, it currently costs around $25,000 – just google “off grid solar 16kwH” to see the various options. The current average energy bill in Australia is $550 per month. Already the cost is very close to the switch covering the cost of finance and repayment in 3-5 years – the typical length of unsecured loans. The switch will happen very quickly when we consider the rapidly declining cost of both solar panels and batteries. Currently the cost of Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries is falling by 40% every 2 years driven by large scale production efficiencies. Based on the current price trend, within 5 years the cross over will start to occur.

And here is where it gets interesting. It will happen quicker than we think based on other non-battery based system efficiencies:

Solar Panels (PV cells) cost performance improvement 20% per doubling of manufacturing capacity – otherwise know as Swanson’s Law. This too will continue. Within 5 years their cost will be 75% less than they are today, and they will be more efficient at capturing energy, due to energy capture improvements. Since 2011 the average PV panel went from only capturing 11% of available joules of energy to 19% currently. Add to this the potential of a curve jump to better technology and we could surpass even our current optimistic estimates. A report just this week from the Journal of Material Science revealed a way to recharge Zinc Air batteries which could be 5 times more efficient than Lithium Ion. 

And finally, lets not forget that the amount of electricity / and energy we use in the home currently has wastage rates of up to 30%. New devices and IoT functional smart homes will significantly reduce the energy wastage in our homes. Once our houses become IoT enabled, not only will the efficiency and capture of an off grid system be much better, there is a highly likelihood we will not require as much energy as we do today. This is because most devices requiring energy in our homes will essentially become computers. This is where Koomey’s Law comes in. Koomey’s Law states that at a fixed computing load, the amount of battery you need will fall by a factor of two every year and a half. This will  have a more dramatic impact on the energy industry as most machines we use computerise.

When we add this up, all these pieces from different previously isolated sectors, it is clear to see we’ll have all the energy we need from the sun and other sustainable sources. Which means, that unless you sell oil or burn coal for a living, the future is certainly bright.

Check out my new book – The Lessons School Forgot –  thrive in the technology era.

Revolutions and pleasure

In the October 1994 Issue of Wired, Gary Wolfe said in an article,  article about Mosiac (the worlds first GUI web browser) and the coming internet revolution.

“When it comes to smashing a paradigm, pleasure is not the most important thing…

it is the only thing.”

Startup blog asks this:

What kind of pleasure is your startup bringing to its people?