Becoming the CEO of Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) on 15 April 2020, Benn Barr was launched into his new role amidst a global pandemic – but it’s nothing his collaborative and positive ethos cannot overcome. Here, he reflects on his career so far, his vision for the energy market and the challenges ahead for the sector.
As a sign of the times, Benn Barr, the new CEO of AEMC, keeps a virtual video conference window open to industry, so they can talk to him about anything the AEMC is doing.
Working with others to develop a good policy community is a sentiment that has long been at the core of Mr Barr’s ethos over a 27 year career in public policy – with 15 of those directly in energy and climate change policy.
Mr Barr is no stranger to working on projects that involve multiple governments. In the 1990s, he worked on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Energy Working Group and negotiations surrounding the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
During eleven years in federal bureaucracy up until 2003, Mr Barr worked with AusAID and across agencies responsible for the important portfolios of industry, energy and transport and communications.
Later in the 2000s, he worked for the Council for the Australian Federation – a forum for state premiers and territory chief ministers to discuss reform issues of national significance.
Championing clean energy
Climate change was a major topic on the council agenda at the time with the council engaging Professor Ross Garnaut in 2007 to undertake his landmark review of the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy.
For the last decade, he has worked closely with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council and its forerunners.
This included a stint with the Office of Clean Energy in Queensland, overseeing what at the time was considered an ambitious plan to propel about 2,000MW of renewable energy capacity into the state by 2020. The Sunshine State now has over 3,000MW of large scale renewable capacity.
“It looked pretty grim for a long time. I don’t think we had a large scale project on the ground until late 2017. What got Queensland there in the end was clarity to the market about the risks and incentives to invest.”
For the last six years, he was Deputy Director General in the Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy.
“I love roles where the group is delivering reform to provide long term benefits to the community,” Mr Barr said.
“The work involved is never easy and “often frustrating but ultimately worth working on due to the size of the prize.”
Driven by a desire to contribute to issues that add value to society, to collaborate on complex issues, Mr Barr describes his ethos as wanting to “work with great people and help develop them.”
When the opportunity arose to come to the AEMC, he did not hesitate.
“The organisation has close alignment with my values and from the outside it has a reputation as a place of high integrity, incredible intellectual capacity and lovely people,” he said.
Learning from the best
Mr Barr’s mentors have included energy economist Paul Simshauser and another of his Director-Generals in Queensland, James Purtill.
Professor Simshauser is now Professor of Economics at Griffith University and Executive General Manager, Energy Markets at Infigen Energy, and is a former Director-General of Queensland’s then Department of Energy and Water Supply.
Mr Barr praised Professor Simshauser’s experience in industry “with his understanding of really deep analytical work, because he’s an academic, and his ability to get people in a room and collaborate with them”.
He also said Mr Purtill taught him the importance of being able to communicate complex ideas to different audiences.
“James is a scientist, a details guy and a bit of [an] introvert but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from hearing him speak. A lot of the work we did in the Department was incredibly complex but most stakeholders don’t want to hear about complexity. They want you to understand what is important to them and for you to be able to communicate in a language they understand.”
The humanitarian side of energy
Another critical time in his career was four years at AusAID where he worked in the Humanitarian and Emergency Unit on demining operations and emergency water supply.
“I really learnt about the importance of trust. You can’t get anything done collaboratively without deep trust relationships,” Mr Barr said.
“In aid, that’s really, really, important. It’s hard getting things done in the country [you] live in, let alone trying to do it in a different country. So taking that time to build deep trust relationships really stands you in great stead.”
His thinking has also been shaped by the views articulated by the former head of Australia’s federal bureaucracy, ex-Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.
These have included having the highest standards of analytical rigour, being crystal clear on strategic direction and to be innovative in thinking about problems and collaborating to solve them.
Mr Barr will move from Brisbane to Sydney with his three young children and his wife, a lecturer in International Relations, in coming months.
He said he had wanted to be able to walk the floor of the AEMC’s new offices in Sydney on his first day.
Instead, he uses technologies like video-conferencing to talk to and listen to staff.
While he said it was strange to start a new job during the COVID-19 pandemic, his motto is to be kind, stay calm, and “focus on the mission-critical.”
“Reflecting on my career, I think things that have gone well are where we have engaged with stakeholders where we understood what was important to them,” Mr Barr said.
“Things that have gone badly, and I reflect on that, are where we’ve had to do it in a way where we haven’t been able to take in stakeholder views. That’s my commitment in this role. Even though it is super fast-paced and we need to be adaptive and responsive, we certainly want to talk to stakeholders about things that impact on them.”
His vision for Australia’s energy markets is a simple one.
“One that is delivering: lights on, prices down, low emissions. It is resilient, flexible and its one that people outside the industry, my kids, aren’t actually talking about.”