Energised for the changes ahead

When describing the transformation of Australia’s energy sector, Anna Collyer likes to point to the era of the old Hollywood musical. For the new Chair of the Australian Energy Market Commission, there’s a legendary line that has a lot of parallels: Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

“It’s not only a Fred Astaire transformation,” she says. “It’s a Ginger Rogers transformation. It’s got that extra degree of complexity and challenge.”

Having had more than two decades experience in the energy industry, Ms Collyer would know.

Ms Collyer started at the AEMC this month from a role as Partner and Head of Innovation at Allens law firm. She has advised clients in the sector ranging from market institutions to industry participants, big energy users and governments. As well as working on privatisations, mergers and acquisitions and major projects, she has been involved in reform of the sector through the then COAG Energy Council and AEMC.

At Allens, while advising the energy sector, Ms Collyer also oversaw the firm’s development of new technologies to help clients deal with their challenges and to improve the delivery of legal services.

“I’m interested in disruption and change, which of course is happening in many different sectors,” Ms Collyer says.

“It’s really been such a constant challenge since I started working in the energy space in the mid-1990s. There’s always been new things to think about, new things to understand. It’s that constant evolution and that keeps gathering pace.”

Early in her career as a lawyer, after a stint in the high-octane world of mergers and acquisitions, Ms Collyer’s practice started to focus on the energy sector, just as major reform kicked off.

She worked on the South Australian electricity privatisation that started in the late 1990s. After breaking up the vertically-integrated Electricity Trust of South Australia, the Olsen government privatised major electricity assets. Ms Collyer worked on the framework for setting tariffs and network charges. That experience reinforced the importance of understanding and integrating the different perspectives around the table of "the economists, the accountants, the engineers, the State’s financial advisers and consumer policy experts and those representing the businesses".

She has advised on the introduction of retail contestability –  a landmark policy that allows consumers to choose their own electricity and gas supplier – in Victoria, and the national framework for energy retail and distribution.

More recently, she advised on renewable energy projects. This included on transactions related to Victoria’s Macarthur Wind Farm and also the Powering Australian Renewables Fund. The fund aims to develop and own about 1,000MW in large-scale renewable projects and the financing that Allens helped with was considered leading-edge.

When the opportunity to lead the AEMC through this time of rapid energy market transformation arose, Ms Collyer was excited.

“I have a deep affection for the sector itself,” she says.

“I’ve always come back to working in the energy sector. I loved being an advisor but this role provides an opportunity to make a different kind of contribution. Having worked as an advisor to the AEMC, I knew the organisation and loved working with the people here. I felt that there was the opportunity to do something that was incredibly valuable and work with great teams that have expertise in areas ranging from economics to commercial development.”

She has taken the role at a busy time. The Energy Security Board’s post-2025 market design plan is due to go to governments in the middle of the year. Important rule changes, such as those to better integrate solar and other distributed energy into the grid, are afoot. 

Ms Collyer says her over-arching focus is on all energy consumers and what’s in their best interests over the long term. There is “no such thing” as a homogenous energy customer as this ranges from industrial users such as aluminium smelters and steel mills to mums and dads on a tight budget, she says.

“Back in the day most customers were pretty passive,” she says.

“Now people have gone to the trouble of installing solar panels or even household batteries. It may be because they want to manage their household electricity and they can see that it’s more cost effective, or it may be that they want to do something personally about climate change. I think a lot about that active involvement in the energy market as it evolves. Ultimately, any customer wants a good service at a good price.”

Ms Collyer says that innovating requires thinking about customers first. This drove her approach to innovation at Allens and was reinforced on a 2017 tour of Silicon Valley where she visited a range of innovative companies. “The product developers would work shifts on the help desk so they could really understand what their customers needed.”

At the AEMC, she is looking forward to working collaboratively to develop solutions “that work for stakeholders and the evolving market”. As part of that, she is keen to hear from a diverse range of voices to help deliver solutions, especially as the sector transitions and new business models emerge.

Ms Collyer is commuting between Melbourne, where her two teenagers are in high school, and the AEMC’s Sydney office.

Outside of work and home, she likes to play piano and to sing. Part of the appeal of singing is “the idea that it’s OK to do something you’re not good at”. “It appeals to the geeky learning person in me because when I started the lessons, I found that it’s not just about opening your mouth and singing. There’s all these weird and wonderful exercises about where you place your voice and that actually helps your pitch. I love that. I can practice that. I can make small improvements.”