Power boss prepares for change
Albert Brantley, not a large man to begin with, looks positively miniature in front of the outsized turbines of the Huntly Power Station.
Rising like a castle out of the Waikato plain, the station is an unmissable landmark for drivers on State Highway One travelling between Auckland and Hamilton.
"No one really understands how big it is until they walk around it," Brantley drawls.
Despite having been chief executive of station owner Genesis Energy for six years, he still finds aspects of the plant - built in stages from 1973 - surprising.
Its scale is inhuman, and it's uncommon to see many of the 200 people who work there too often because it is mostly automated. If its two giant chimneys were relocated to Auckland's CBD they'd be the fourth and fifth-highest buildings in the city, behind only the Sky Tower, the Metropolis and the Vero Centre.
It was built in an era when large public works projects were commonplace, but the likes of Huntly are unlikely to be seen again because the cost would be prohibitive, Brantley says.
"But back then it wasn't about the money, it was about building a nation."
The station is Genesis' cornerstone, producing roughly two-thirds of the company's electricity via three giant gas-fired turbines. The remainder comes from a sprinkling of smaller hydro dams scattered across the country. Genesis produces 18 per cent of the country's electricity, though that is well behind Meridian, the sector's largest generator.
With the rise of concern, and regulation, over greenhouse gases, Huntly evolved from its originally intended role as core generator into a hedging facility, Brantley says.
"It was designed for a different market and context," he says. "It's the way the market works. Our traditional role has been backup."
Huntly's ability to be turned on and off to match demand has caused friction in the industry, with competitors complaining of price-gouging when Genesis sells electricity on the spot market.
Brantley shrugs at these moans and says it's all in the game. Competitors "just piggyback on us," he says.
Brantley, who turned 65 this month ("The Super Gold card is in the mail!" he cracks) didn't cut his teeth managing markets.
He's moved more into management over the past two decades but is still more comfortable in a hardhat and workboots than in a suit at a boardroom table.
Appointed to the Genesis job in 2008, he says settling in New Zealand is in marked contrast to his former "expat gypsy" existence as a roving engineer who plied his trade in some of the world's coldest climes and hottest conflict zones.
Born in Macon, Georgia, Brantley retains much of his Southern accent despite a nomad work life that has seen him work in five continents. He's keen to emphasis he's Canadian, not American, after spending his schooling and early work years in the frozen tundra of the north.
He recalls his time in the Arctic with equal measures of professional pride and shuddering recollection of working in inhospitable conditions where the temperature routinely hit minus 50 degrees.
"It was great for me, because you got to build things that had never been built before," he says of his part in helping to build oil and gas infrastructure that soon saw the Canadian province of Alberta nicknamed the Texas of the North.
He describes the premise of reality television series Ice Road Truckers, chronicling a band of rough long-haul drivers who ride routes in similar conditions in North America, with some disdain. Brantley says, with emphasis: "Those wusses driving on 250 kilometre trails? We built 2500 kilometres of roads in the Canadian Arctic!"
Escaping the cold of Canada for the blistering heat of the Australian outback, he then bounced to a series of postings that might suggest to someone examining his passport that he was more mercenary than engineer.
He also reveals he was shot at during two postings. The first time was in the Philippines during the mid 1980s, on a fossil-fuels exploration gig for the World Bank.
"We were doing exploration all up and down the coast, and I used to drive across Mindanao, on my own, five or six times a month," he says.
Mindanao has been gripped by low-intensity conflict since the 1970s. "The preoccupation became to not get kidnapped," Brantley recalls.
The close shave didn't deter him from accepting other risky jobs. The second time he experienced gunfire was in the early 1990s while working on a thermal power plant in Pakistan. He'd even convinced his wife - Greymouth-born Beverley - to tag along for the ride.
"We had a situation where we were living in Lahore - I even took my wife, God bless her - but I had to fly halfway across the country, and then join a heavily-armed ground convoy to drive near the head of the Indus River near the Afghan border, to get to work."
He also worked in New Zealand, with mining firms L&M and OceanaGold, but a lack of heavy engineering opportunities saw him continue in places as far-flung as the United Arab Emirates and Chile. The Genesis job gave him an opportunity to put down roots.
"I had the good fortune of being able to choose where I want to live in the world. And to me, this is the closest to paradise we'll ever come on this Earth. I love this country, I'm committed to it."
Brantley is aware that the pending float of Genesis, with up to 49 per cent of the company flagged for listing on the NZX next month, will bring him more into the public eye.
It's something the engineer with a love of giant machines has previously avoided.
"I do try to keep a low profile, it's better that way. The only good thing [with listing] is no longer being subject to that damned Official Information Act."
The Labour and Green parties could yet play spoiler for investors who bought into the government float of energy companies, having pledged to establish a controversial single-buyer model in order to clamp down on retail electricity prices.
Concern over that potential has already been priced into the first two partial selldowns of Meridian and Mighty River Power, but a February UBS research note indicated Genesis could see $165 million wiped off its valuation if Labour and the Greens win the election.
Albert Brantley, the chief executive of Genesis Energy, the last state-owned enterprise partial sell-off with an expected listing date of April 17, is diplomatic in his assessment of the political risks. "The industry is very concerned about it, and we're certainly watching the debate closely. We still need a lot more clarity about how it will work," he says.
Despite the possibility of a shock to his company's valuation, Brantley says the Opposition's plans could well see Genesis improve its position relative to competitors.
"It certainly is a policy aimed towards large hydro generators. We certainly are a hydro generator in our own right but, surprisingly, we see opportunities in the thermal side of the business," he says. Hydro generation is more efficient per unit than that produced thermally, and a different market may minimise this difference.
"We may be able to look at contracted prices under a single-buyer model that means we don't have to compete in an open market with higher-priced thermal generation," he says.
- Sunday Star Times