Two years forward and one back for Cathy Zoi

After taking the reins of the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) in New South Wales in 1996, the American executive director, Cathy Zoi, has found success with many of her goals. The article interviews Zoi, as well as her critics, on the progress of SEDA.

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Two years in the relaxed business atmosphere of Australia tends to mellow even the most gung-ho American corporate types. Not Cathy Zoi. After taking the reins of the Sustainable Energy Development Authority in New South Wales in 1996, the "can-do" executive director seems to have lost none of her enthusiasm or intensity.

Two years ago, Zoi confidently predicted -- some say boasted -- that Australia would see megawatt-sized wind farms, solar power stations and a green power schemes within the agency's three year effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to which it had devoted A$46 million. More remarkably, SEDA would accomplish this through the process of transforming electricity markets in a state where 80% of power comes from coal fired plant. Indeed, in the first few weeks of the fledgling organisation's existence, Zoi had staff write sample "pie in the sky" headlines that stretched even the most ambitious targets, including Australia's first wind farm on the grid. Two years down the track and it's "amazing how many have actually come true," she now says.

One of SEDA's most potent efforts has been the development of a green power scheme that has now been adopted for two-thirds of the Australian population. The scheme did not catch on in New South Wales quite as fast as Zoi had predicted, but progress is still impressive. On its launch, she confidently predicted that 25,000 customers would sign up to the scheme in the first three months. Eighteen months later, there are 22,000 customers nationally, about 1% of the customer base.

"We have fallen short," admits Zoi, who lays the blame squarely at the feet of an electricity industry whose goals in this new market have been "exceedingly unambitious." Still, she notes, the effort has resulted in nearly A$70 million of new investments in renewable energy and given "every single power company experience with renewable energy generation." And Zoi still believes 5% of customers will buy green power.

Success, however, has not come without its ironies. New South Wales is going backwards in the greenhouse gas reduction stakes (main story). Although Zoi is too savvy to directly criticise her political masters, her frustration is thinly veiled. She talks about the situation through gritted teeth -- particularly the topic of emissions trading. Zoi had pushed hard for state-based trading that could be dovetailed later into a national or even international effort. She was beaten, initially at least, by government bureaucrats, people she describes as "Sir Humphries" in a reference to the "extremely risk-adverse bureaucrats" parodied in the British television comedy "Yes, Minister."

Zoi admits that she still gets "befuddled" by Australia's Westminster inheritance "where bureaucrats seem to run the show more than the politicians." She believes, however, it is only a matter of time before emissions trading is a an every day part of business life and that the development will help electricity retailers meet license conditions that require emissions reduction.

Shy critics

The response from the electricity industry is somewhat mixed. Although Zoi has many champions in a traditionally male-dominated monopoly, she is not without her critics -- though it's hard to get them to say anything publicly (fearing, perhaps, that Zoi is listening). The executive manager of the Electricity Association of New South Wales, Michael Sinclair, points out that although SEDA has raised the awareness of consumers, "there would need to be a revolution in the structure of the market before the sustainable energy outcomes that SEDA strives for will make noticeable inroads."

SEDA supporters believe the agency is a successful model that should be adopted internationally. Zoi muses that in her previous incarnation back home in the United States -- as deputy chief of staff in charge of greening the White House in Washington DC -- she and her colleagues "used to dream of organisations with "the flexibility and commercial focus of SEDA's charter."

Zoi takes the comments of the electricity establishment in her stride, knowing, perhaps, that the chaos of industry undergoing unprecedented change can produce surprising results. Looking in her crystal ball, she sees "triple digit" growth for the Australian wind industry in "tens of megawatts in the next five years." She adds: "It will be a long time before we catch up, but I think that Australia will have a very real wind industry by 2001." If so, Zoi can take some credit for transforming at least one market.

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