Terri Benson: Network in transition

Essential Energy managing director, Terri Benson
Essential Energy managing director, Terri Benson

Essential Energy managing director, Terri Benson discusses the New South Wales distributor’s new brand, a renewed focus on network supply and developing close ties with regional communities.

The 2010/2011 financial year has seen a period of major transition for Essential Energy. Between October 2010 and March 2011 the regional New South Wales distributor appointed a new managing director, sold its retail business to Origin Energy and rebranded itself with a focus on network supply. As a new financial year begins and with three years of a $6 billion infrastructure investment remaining, managing director Terri Benson’s challenge is to find the right investment that delivers the best value for regional New South Wales communities.With a network covering 95 per cent of NSW, ensuring that infrastructure investment is in the right locations is her major focus.

“It’s an interesting time for the industry… the nature of the network is changing. How people use it, how people rely on it, the move into renewables; the network is being asked to do things it wasn’t asked to do 50 years ago,” Ms Benson explained to Energy Source & Distribution.

Appointed Essential Energy’s managing director in October 2010 after acting in the role for more than four months, Ms Benson has more than 20 years’ experience in accounting and related fields. She joined the energy sector in 1998 and has held several senior management roles in that time. Having joined the industry in the same year that the National Energy Market was introduced, Ms Benson has seen the introduction of full retail competition as well as experienced the merger of Advanced Energy, NorthPower and Great Southern Energy to form Country Energy before becoming Essential Energy. Moving into regulatory affairs has taught her how the business’ economics works, how the regulator models operate as well as safety and human resource issues.

“That was great space for me to learn about how the actual operations run, spend time in the field and get to know what the challenges of getting the job done are,” Ms Benson said.

“The industry has probably been in the background (of the public interest) for a long time, a very stable sort of environment for many years, and now with technology changing and renewables having to be made available, how do you facilitate that? It’s an interesting time to work out the role it plays and how does it do that,” she said.

Ms Benson is chair of Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW, a dispute resolution organisation covering electricity, gas and water. As chairperson her role is to ensure the Ombudsman’s independence is maintained with open access to complaint and dispute resolution, broadening her role in the industry and community.

With the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, the 43-year-old’s vision for Essential Energy is for it to become the leading provider of essential services in regional Australia.

“I think we’ve got all the fundamentals right, I just want to see the organisation really achieve its potential and continue to deliver that safe and viable service. I want Essential Energy to be a respected organisation in the marketplace and to have that strong external perspective to how that plays its role in the market,” she said.

Ms Benson is satisfied with Essential Energy’s transition from out of Country Energy, with the name change being well received by customers, communities and employees. The re-focus on network services has encouraged some internal reflection, with the transmitter looking at finding the right approach as a network services business.

Essential Energy operates through a regional model in 1500 communities, with several regions, such as the far north coast, dealing with high-growth scenarios. Ms Benson said this regional focus was a benefit to the company with major infrastructure upgrades and smart-grid implementation taking place.

“I think we are lucky because we are based in regional communities… we probably have close community ties which we focus heavily on. We have a regional management structure and we make sure local decisions get made locally. So we have strong ties in the communities and I think getting information to customers for us has been probably an advantage there because of that community base,” she said.

Heightened media interest around energy has meant that communicating with customers has taken on a new importance. Essential Energy’s Energy Answers contact centre has been running for 18 months and received 20,000 calls. Essential Energy is able to provide a complete energy walkthrough of customers homes over the phone and they can discuss appliances and provide free advice on the best time of day to use them. Word of mouth has quickly spread interest in the service and a good percentage of customers are reducing their bills, according to Ms Benson.

Essential Energy has significant network projects underway, with network renewal one of the largest taking place. The Cooma to Bega transmission line in south east New South Wales is in the first stage of a second 132,000 V transmission line construction. Building capacity to the existing line will provide some redundancy as well as increased capacity for that part of the state. In the far north coast a three-year project has commenced where an existing 66,000 V line will be converted into a 132,000 V line. It will link a large area including Lismore, Murrumbimbi, Byron Bay, Lennox Head and Balina, creating a dual circuit ensuring supply to the fastest- growing part of the state.

Essential Energy’s approach to improving network efficiencies is to focus less on advanced metering infrastructure and instead look at a range of practical solutions that give benefits quickly within the network. In April the company announced the establishment of a major ‘Intelligent Network’ project in the southeast New South Wales town of Bega. The project will see the marriage of information technology to the electricity network and the integration of customer-enhanced ‘IN-home’ displays and meters and small-scale renewables. They will be trialling a system of technologies that includes power line sensors, remote switches, meters and other automated equipment.

Bega residents will help inform national approaches to the eventual creation of an automated and intuitive electricity system with metering solutions making up only one part of a package including power lines, switches, inverters and power storage.

“Intelligent network for us is looking to the future, trialling what’s possible… because we‘ve got such a vast territory to cover, our view is that there won’t be a cookie-cutter approach to this,” Ms Benson said.

“There won’t be a one-size solution. We’ll have to come up with solutions that will meet local needs and depending on the nature of the network for each community, there might be different solutions. But we are looking at trying to keep in extremely practical. And I think if we start with the meter as part of the package, but it needs to feed back to the whole network so we get information about how the whole network is performing, not just the customer’s premise.”

Essential Energy built a demonstration centre at Queanbeyan where research projects, such as an inverter technology prototype, are tested. The inverter passed all of its tests and has been moved to Bega for real network trials.

“We see it as that’s the way to approach it. We try to balance the cost with getting real solutions from doing it,” Ms Benson said.

As the “year of transition” and her first year leading a transmitter draws to a close, Ms Benson is certain about what she would liked to have accomplished.

“We’ll complete all that transition period and it will be about Essential Energy and ensuring we are performing as the best essential service provider in regional New South Wales,” she said.