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PowerSwitch. Sounds great, eh. It’s got that ring of super vitality about. Sounds like one of those chemical concoctions designed to put instant spring into your step or oomph into your sex life. It’s a symbol with punch. This article examines PowerSwitch and comes to the conclusion it is both misleading and disempowering.

So what is Powerswitch? Powerswitch is an online system for comparing different electricity pricing plans. You enter data of the region you live in, your current billing for main-grid sourced electricity and consumption patterns. The system extrapolates from this data to compute the cheapest pricing plan available to you in your area. You can access it on line at the NZ Consumer Institute or by ringing or visiting your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

This article does not attempt to gauge the accuracy of the data and algorithms used to estimate and compare pricing plans. Nor is it in anyway an attempt to discredit the very dedicated and extremely well-meaning people who staff these institutions. It attempts to place PowerSwitch within the political context of our times and assess its impact on the environment. It examines PowerSwitch for the potential impacts of the following energy uses caused by the resource: creation, maintenance and disposal, transportation, design, sponsorship and symbols. The sum of these impacts constitutes the total environmental footprint of PowerSwitch.

Energy use in planning, consultation and construction
Includes manufacture and transport of materials and all persons.

Powerswitch is a computer programme. All the information and skills are available in Wellington. Unless they were imported from other centres, the creation of the resource should not have involved air travel etc.
Footprintpotentially minimal


Energy use during the lifetime of resource:
Includes maintenance, disposal, fuel use and net electricity use.

Updating and reprogramming can be done from any computer and centralised website hosts use electricity efficiently. Disposal of the resource can be achieved with the touch of a delete button.
Footprintpotentially minimal


Energy use in direct transportation for duration of resource:
Includes transport of audience and resources to each other. (Electronic v hard copy v rail v bus v car v pedestrian etc.)

Access to SwitchPower at the Consumer Institute is via the internet. Access at the CAB is by telephone or personally visiting your local office. The latter method of access could use considerable amounts of energy, especially if a large number of car trips are made.
minimal to minor.



Energy use promoted by design of resource for duration of resource:
Includes enhancement of vehicle type use and media type use.

The telecommunications basis of PowerSwitch provides a good model of how information can be communicated with the effective use of electricity. In practice, there is little risk that provision of personal access via the CAB will be promote acceptance of the need for construction and maintenance of car parks and the private vehicle culture generally.



Energy use leveraged off sponsorship for duration of resource by sponsors: Includes suppression of public awareness of environmental impact of activities of sponsor, facilitation of approval of activities by regulatory authorities and enhancement of image (language) engineering to serve sponsors interests.

About the Citizens' Advice Bureaux
Citizens Advice Bureau is a voluntary organisation providing free, confidential information and advice to anyone about any query or problem. CAB is staffed by trained volunteers who can access information by computer or from the extensive range of resources held by each bureau.
We also act as a public watchdog for those who cannot do this for themselves.
We are committed to the responsible use of the enquiries information we receive to build a picture of what is affecting our communities, regionally and nationally.
Over our 25-year history, we have become a respected voice. We are trusted as informed and professional advocates of those that are disadvantaged or unfairly treated.”

About the Consumers' Institute
“Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand, Inc.
Consumers' Institute is an independent, non-profit organisation established in 1959 with the sole aim of getting New Zealand consumers a fairer deal.
Our work covers a wide range of activities relating to consumer protection and information.
When we say "independent" we mean it.
We never accept free goods for testing, nor do we accept donations or sponsorship. Our magazines are completely independent and have no ties with any commercial firm or organisation.
How we're financed.
Our money comes from the sale of our publications and subscriptions to Consumer and Consumer Online. We do not accept advertising in anything we publish to protect the strict impartiality of our reporting.”

The CAB has two sponsors: Telecom and the Government Ministry for Consumer Affairs. Its website is very upfront about Telecom’s sponsorship.

Telecom is part of a very inefficient national system of telecommunications, characterised by duplication and fracturing of broadband services. This has resulted in a considerable negative impact on the environment and with New Zealand having one of the lowest uptakes of broadband in the OECD. The system has contributed to the increasing wealth disparity in a number of ways. The Telecom website maintains links to the CAB web page showing their sponsorship. It also has an advertisement detailing its relationship with the CAB as part of its publicity programme.

However the Government sponsorship of the CAB is not obvious to the casual visitor of its website, even though it’s potential impact on the organisation is considerable. Brief mention is made elsewhere on the CAB’s site that their permanent internet connection is enabled by their involvement with PowerSwitch.

The Consumer Institute has a major sponsor, despite its claims that it is “completely independent” and “does not accept advertising.” PowerSwitch does contain the following statement:

 "PowerSwitch is produced by  Consumers' Institute with assistance from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and the Emily Carpenter Trust "

Government statements and media releases put it differently. It seems very much a Government initiative. This 2001 Media Release states:

Comparing domestic electricity prices has been made easier with Consumer PowerSwitch, a government sponsored online service (www.powerswitch.org.nz) which allows consumers to compare electricity prices and plans.

Some may have difficulty recognising that PowerSwitch is an advertisement. If so, it may be helpful to provide a brief history of the electricity industry. Throughout its history the electricity industry has been the arena of a constant battle between the bankers who control bulk-generating facilities and associated industries and communities. At stake is enormous wealth. 

Communities tend to favour electricity systems that retain and distribute the wealth among their members. As a result they tend to be the source of energy efficiency programmes and innovation in distributed generation, “intelligent” grids, “smart” technology to reduce peak loads and of alternative uses of energy such as solar developments. All these activities work to reduce the profits and power of the bankers. The intensive capital nature of the Bulk-generation plant means makes it much easier for this group to control and cream off the profits from the system at the expense of the community and the environment. 

In the 1980s, many in the Post-war Generation forgot the lessons of the past and there was a major movement in many countries to transfer community ownership of electricity systems to a few merchant bankers. In New Zealand this took the form of the “privatisation” of national and local assets. Governments were installed that enacted legislation forcing communities to corporatise and adopt “profit-driven” models in their electricity and gas distribution structures. This was designed to fragment the national system and make it to easier to transfer control and wealth. (A potted history of the Reforms of the electricity industry is available at the Ministry for Economic Development. Bear in mind the authors clearly have little knowledge of the high degree of efficiency and innovation that small community-owned distribution structures are capable of in a collegial system.)

When this legislation failed to achiever the Reformer’s ends, legislation was enacted in 1998 further fragmenting the system and forcing communities to give away control of much of their assets. This was described as “deregulation” and massive advertising campaigns described it as giving all electricity consumers “real choice”. In fact it was a massive intervention. It effectively removed the rights of individuals to access the electricity market through their communities. It destroyed their access to a wide range of consumer oriented technologies and systems.

This movement to transfer control coincided with a new wave technology. The Electronic Age was bringing a raft of technologies, including distributed generation, energy efficiency, “smart” appliances and the ability of the grid to transfer broadband data. The convergence of these technologies would have given communities new ability to control their use of a wide range of valuable energy forms. Effectively the Reforms removed these choices. The result has been:
- a large transfer of wealth out of communities and rocketing electricity prices for small consumers (up to 20% per annum); 
-reduced accountability and security of supply;
-stagnating energy efficiency (under 1%) despite major technology advances; 
-and an increasing and environmentally unsustainable demand for electricity of up to 5% per annum.

Despite the professed concern of the current 2005 Government at these trends, it has made no attempt to alter the legislation and redress the loss. There are a range of reasons why. It finds the billions of dollars politically very convenient that it receives from the income stream of dividends and taxation of Bulk-generated electricity sales. Also, as recorded in the Environment Commissioner’s reports, the Government favours “industry-derived” solutions. The Government is not inclined to “community -based solutions.“community -based solutions.”. And as the Consumer's Institute submission on the Electricity and Gas Industries Bill - 30 January 2004 puts it:

“That the reforms of the last two decades were begun without careful attention having been given to such basic features of the electricity system says much about those who have driven them. Of more immediate interest, of course, is what it says about a government and an industry that seem intent on maintaining the belief that the present market solutions will deliver.”

The truth is the present market system is fundamentally flawed and cannot deliver a sustainable economy. The best sources of innovation in the community are stifled by the present system and energy efficiency practice on a national scale is counter to the legal requirements to make taxable profits. PowerSwitch can be seen simply as a contrivance to obscure an unsustainable market system when viewed in this context.

PowerSwitch also perpetuates other myths. One is that competition exists among retailers and keeps prices down. Previous to the Reforms, retailing costs amounted to as little as 6% of the consumer’s bill. It could well be double this figure now. Distribution costs, for instance, account for half the bill and are relatively fixed. To alter these costs requires the profound involvement of communities and the restoration of full rights of access to the Electricity Market. PowerSwitch  obscures the scale of the disenfranchisement that has occurred.

However there is something far more destructive inherent in PowerSwitch. It actively punishes generation and retail companies that are engaged in sustainable practices. A company may be investing in the development and promotion of “smart” systems and technology that enable householders to use a range of energy forms far more efficiently. This may result in much higher living standards and reduced impacts on the environment. Unit costs of electricity may be higher but net costs are reduced.

An example is Meridian Energy’s investment in the Whispergen, the eSmart Affinity Terminal and other initiatives with Orion. Orion's owners re-invest its profits in insulating dwellings and other electricity demand reduction measures.

Similarly diversification into wind-based generation is punished. Its custormers may be paying a premium to support TrustPower’s Wind Farm projects. PowerSwitch punishes TrustPower and rewards Contact Energy, the company already benefiting from the Government’s mandatory “standby generation” charge on-those same individuals. The latter gets paid to maintain a fossil-fuel burning plant! 

In fact, PowerSwitch works to reward companies that are involved in unsustainable and high risk activities. It takes no account of the fact that a company may be involved in education programmes that actively destroy our knowledge base and is prepared to take high risks with consumers. This high risk activity may take the form of failure to invest in quality equipment, promotion of high-risk grid use, failure to ensure customer security in terms of who they permit to access properties or in failing to insure against fluctuations in market prices.

In a classic piece of myth-making PowersSwitch advices you to “Reduce your peak electricity demand…. The companies pass on to consumers the benefits of using off-peak power in two main ways: Controlled power …”

What PowerSwitch fails to inform you as that the Reforms make it logical for companies to charge you extra for turning off your hot water etc at times of peak load of the grid now. In fact, PowerSwitch encourages you to transfer your custom to those companies that charge consumers extra if they wish to use the grid and the environment sustainably by means of intelligent hot water control systems.

PowerSwitch also promotes companies that indulge in subtle policies involving investments designed to undermine public “energy efficiency” programmes and democratic institutions.  Companies such as Enron and OnEnergy thrive in the culture that SwitchPower promotes.

PowerSwitch lists only one real caveat:We have also excluded any rebates from community-owned trusts, line companies or any dividends paid by Contact Energy to its shareholders.” 

Such exclusions reveal the nonsense of the Reforms and PowerSwitch. If the Market is liberalised again and communities are able to participate fully in the Electricity Market once more, then the generation of a wide range of “rebates” will effectively reduce the overall electricity bill for a wide range of consumers.  If the Market becomes even more exclusive, then those consumers will be paying a wide range of extra taxes and costs to maintain the status quo. PowerSwitch excludes such important considerations and is thus revealed as a very crude tool.

To be fair, PowerSwitch does offer inklings that it is aware of the farce it perpetuates. Deep in the Contracts page it touches on reality when it warns:
Ultimately, the contractual terms may well be less important than the way the retailer delivers on its promises. The real test of the relationship will be how they actually treat you.”
It might have added how the retailer “actually treats you and the environment of our children."

The Consumer Institute and the CAB both have widespread reputations for independence, consumer care and integrity. This means their endorsement gives exceptionally high leverage to the Government’s advertising campaign. That leverage is further compounded by the mass of excellent advice the resource contains. When it is placed in the wider political context that generated SwitchPower, that information's  presence in the resource works in a counterproductive way.
It is a well documented rule in the PR industry that “enlisting the support of local Consumer and Education groups” is one of the most potent techniques available to it.

: Large-potentially massive.


Energy use promoted by use of symbols and evocation of flawed images of energy: Includes uses of symbols (words, illustrations, graphics, etc) designed to enhance use of forms of energy owned by a particular sectror. To the extent the use of these symbols devalues scientific principles of energy, the resource will have a negative impact on the environment.

This energy use is the most difficult to quantify. At the same time the vast multibillion dollar investments in re-engineering our images of energy testifies to the forces involved. Again a brief history may be helpful. Since the birth of the electricity industry in the 1890s the principal shareholders of the Bulk-generation system have recognised the vital importance of image. They colonised the symbol “power” initially as part of their fight to dominate the gas industry.  It is now registered as synonymous with grid-based electricity (Power stations, power lines, power poles, Power Boards, power points, power bills etc.)

About the 1970’s they began colonising the symbol "energy" as part of an even more sophisticated marketing programme. This enabled them to control amd exploit public responses to the potential inherent in energy. It worked to ensure that only a range of energy-use options remain in public focus and that environmental impacts are discounted.

PowerSwitch is a product of these marketing strategies. The double pun on “power switch” is a double failure in terms of the objectives of both Consumer Institute and the CAB. It switches people on to unsustainable images of power and it disempowers people politically.

Throughout the resource it randomly (and thus most profoundly) reinforces links between "power' and 'energy' and Bulk-generated electricity. Observe the following examples:

About Switching
“The only change you should notice will be on your power bill. This will be sent to you by your new electricity company and will probably be printed using a different format or layout. The new company will use the exactly the same network of power lines to deliver electricity to your house as your current electricity company…. I own shares in my existing power company. If I switch companies, will I have to sell my shares?

 How it works
How much electricity have you have used?
All the information we need to know is on your power bill:

the start and finish dates for the time your bill covers; and
the amount of power you have used.

Pricing Plans:
Controlled power.

The electricity company is able to control power to your hot water-cylinder using ripple control. You are charged the same rate for both controlled and general power.

The electricity company installs a meter at your home that controls your power supply. You pay for your electricity in advance, usually either on a smart card or with a PIN number which charges up a meter.

The normal rate for pre-paid power is usually slightly cheaper than for other pricing plans. However, if you run out of power and have to get an emergency top up, the top-up power will be more expensive. Pre-paid options can include a power management system which allows you to monitor how much power you are using."

These are just a few of many examples of this conditioning programme. Its effectiveness is further enhanced with the way the symbols in the heading banners and side indexes wrap the script on the webpages. They might contain four variations of the symbol "power" around one sentence

It is pleasing that PowerSwitch does not call either electricity or gas "energy" in general. However it is interesting to note that you cannot compare gas and electricity costs or gas costs without signing up to the Consumer's Institute. This supports gas industry and Government attempts to separate the uses of these resources and related industries in the public mind. The reality is that gas and main grid electricity industries are inextricably connected – something the Consumer Institute notes in its submissions on the Electricity and Gas Industries bill:

“Furthermore, the scheme should be made mandatory for gas distributors and retailers. There is no logical reason why the ECC (reconstituted as an “Energy Ombudsman”) cannot undertake a similar role in the gas sector. Many (if not most) of the companies involved in this sector are also involved in electricity. Consumers often contract with the same supplier for gas and electricity, and billing is often done by way of a single “energy” invoice.”

This is pure Energy Gobbledygook and PR spin. It links us to some of the most unsustainable images promoted by PowerSwitch. It is probable the following were supplied by EECA (the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority). This Government agency is the most chronic generator of such images.

Saving Power
You don't have to switch power companies or spend large amounts of time checking all the pricing plans to save energy in your home. A lot can be achieved by developing the right power use habits.

When it comes to reducing power consumption, lower power bills are not the only benefit. Reducing power consumption will have also help the environment by reducing CO2 emissions (which contribute to global warming).

Below is a brief outline of some ways you can reduce your electricity consumption - for more information see our full guide to Saving Energy at Home.

Concentrate on water and space heating, as these account for between half to three-quarters of the total energy use in most households"

And in Saving Energy

Want to do your bit to help avoid a future power crisis, and knock hundreds of dollars off your annual bills in the process?

If turning your home into a model of energy efficiency is a bit daunting, don't despair. There are many simple ways you can save energy without blowing the home maintenance budget.

We identify the major causes of energy loss in the home, reveal the most power-hungry appliances, suggest strategies for reducing your power bill, and discuss community and government energy initiatives."

The use of the symbols of power and energy in this manner is entirely at odds with scientific principles of the nature of energy and power. Examples are:

Ø       Symbol use such as Saving Energy, Saving Power and “energy loss”. (The Principle of the Conservation of Energy states it can be neither created nor destroyed and comes in many forms.)

Ø       Symbol use equates electricity with energy. (Electricity is not energy. It is an energy form. Gas is best described as a fuel as it requires air to be a useful energy form.)

Ø       Symbol use associates “energy efficiency” with deprivation and loss. (Energy efficiency is the wise and effective use of energy in all its forms and is a life enhancing practice.)

Ø       Power (energy) can be in crisis. (Any crisis is founded in our use of energy)

Each of these symbols is a major contributor to our global image pollution. The aggregate use of these symbols has a profound impact. It works to destroy the popular understanding of the nature of energy and to lower appreciation of science. It works to concentrate consumer focus on the few products provided by the Fossil Fuel-Bulk Electricity sector. It works to make it easier for this sector to manipulate community behaviour – especially in periods when increased grid loads could dent the profits for the sector’s principal shareholders. It works against the adoption of alterative sources of power such as solar, wind, wave, sustainable biomass, etc and increases demand for high risk thermal and nuclear based electricity generation. For more on this topic visit, the Energy Gobbledygook resource.

Footprint: potentially massive.

In summary, their association with PowerSwitch means the NZ Consumers' Institute and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux may well be working against their most vital objectives. Odds are they are generating a massive environmental footprint. The positive thing is that it requires the use of a very small amount of energy to activate the delete key on their computer systems.

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Posted Jan 2005