Electricity Ashburton Limited, trading as EA Networks, is unique among New Zealand electricity distribution companies in that it is the only co-operative. Based in Mid-Canterbury, the community-owned business delivers power, fibre, water and contracting services.
It is fitting that the country’s only co-operatively owned network company should be located in Ashburton, proudly claimed by locals as “New Zealand’s co-op capital” with more than 40 co-ops in the district.
After starting life as a privately owned generator, the Ashburton Electric Power Board (AEPB) was established in 1923. Electricity Ashburton Limited (as the AEPB became in 1995) supplies electricity line services to approximately 17,450 consumers using almost 3,000km of underground cables and overhead lines.
During September 2012, Electricity Ashburton Limited established the trading name “EA Networks”, a fresh new brand adopted to reflect the changing nature of the business beyond just electricity distribution.
As the graphic above shows, the business scope has grown to meet mid-Cantabrians’ changing needs.
First and foremost, the ownership and strategic focus of the co-op is all about community.
The Ashburton District Council holds 28,750,000 (95.6%) of the co-op’s 30,069,100 shares in a non-rebate/non-voting form on behalf of the local people. For every consumer connected to the local electricity distribution system it’s great news: they are not only allocated 100 rebate shares, but they can get a deferred discount on their power bill and a democratic say on the co-op’s governance. All new electricity consumers are initially deemed to be a shareholder and the vast majority wisely opt to retain their stake. For more details, check out the EA Networks’ website.
General Manager Gordon Guthrie, pictured, says that it is fitting for a company like EA Networks to be a co-operative business.
“Providing critical infrastructure to businesses and residents is the core function of the company, and having customers with an ownership interest ensures sound decision making regarding future investment choices.”
During 2008 the co-op began developing a fibre-optic network, providing residents and businesses with access to ultra-fast broadband and other services.
Gordon says EA Networks has now installed more than 450km of direct access fibre.
“Our fibre-optic network was designed to connect electricity substations, enabling smart-grid applications, remote control and fault protection systems for improved reliability. We then increased capacity, so that businesses and residents on the network route could connect to our ultra-fast broadband.
“EA Networks’ fibre network delivers base speeds of up to 30Mb/second. We can also provide access speeds over 1Gb/second if required and dark fibre to those wanting total control,” he says.
In December 2009, after on-going discussions between the two, EA Networks formalised a joint venture agreement with Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation (BCI). Including an initial $10 million of EA Networks seed investment, the joint venture built infrastructure to irrigate approximately 13,300 hectares of Mid-Canterbury farmland. BCI, like EA Networks, is a co-operative company. Formed by around 200 Mid-Canterbury farmers, the company has resource consents to take 17 cumecs of water from the Rakaia River to use for electricity generation and irrigation. Read more on Water.
With its long history and expertise in electricity reticulation, EA Networks’ contracting arm can complete new connections to the network and far more besides. Indeed, its services are increasingly diverse and in growing demand throughout the region. From underground electricity and fibre optic reticulation to irrigation and dairy conversion power supply, add earthing systems, stray voltage testing, tree maintenance and much more.
Gordon says that being a co-operative business owned by its customers, EA Networks has strong ties to the community.
“While we’re focused on investing in infrastructure that delivers economic benefit to the region, we’re also proud to invest in community projects.
“For example, EA Networks connects all local urban and rural schools to our fibre optic network. This ensures that every child in the district can access ultra-fast broadband and the latest in education tools provided by Network 4 Learning.
“We also helped create Ashburton’s new swimming and recreation facility – The EA Networks Centre – which opened in May last year (2015),” he says.