Trevor St Baker has gone off the grid. Visitors to the St Lucia home of the ERM Power founder are proudly told about the solar panels on the roof before being escorted to the garage where the 76-year-old shows off his gas-fuelled generator and electric car.
“We sell power back to the grid,” St Baker says.
St Baker’s commitment to alternative energy extends beyond his house, with the entrepreneur pumping more than $50 million into the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund, which invests in everything from electric vehicle charging systems to smart energy devices.
But St Baker, who founded Australia’s fourth largest power retailer, is far from a card-carrying, carrot-munching greenie. Last year, he invested in a coal-fired power station in NSW and warns ambitious renewable energy targets are not practical. St Baker built a 60-year career in an industry fuelled by coal and gas, making him an energy pragmatist rather than an idealist.
“We are involved in the dirty black and the clean green,” St Baker says. “What will keep the lights on when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining?
‘‘It is not possible to do it with just renewables at the moment and we are happy to invest in coal.”
Born in working class Bankstown, St Baker was academically bright enough to enter a selective high school before winning a full scholarship to study engineering at university. “I could have been a civil engineer but decided electricity was the more interesting sector to get involved in,” he says. After working for the NSW electricity commission, St Baker joined its Queensland counterpart in 1970. At the time, Queensland needed major changes to its moribund electricity network as it moved from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial one.
“The coal board met every six months to set prices, so power generators could not do any forward planning,” St Baker recalls.
St Baker helped implement reforms, including the construction of Gladstone Power Station, which laid the foundation of the state’s development.
“By the 1980s, Queensland had the cheapest supply of electricity in Australia. It was fully interconnected and free from debt. This helped open up Queensland and made places like Gladstone leading manufacturing hubs.”
After missing out on a top job in the bureaucracy, St Baker says he “left in a huff” to form his own electricity consultancy that eventually became ERM Power.
Being overlooked had its advantages, transforming St Baker from a public servant into an entrepreneur respected for his negotiation skills.
The privatisation of the power sector in the 1990s enabled St Baker and ERM to become more than an adviser. In 1996, ERM bought Oakey Power Station before going on to operate a string of gas-fired generators around the state.In 2008, it diversified into electricity retailing before listing on the stock exchange in 2010.
St Baker remains on the board as deputy non-executive chairman, but these days most of his time is spent overseeing his three-year-old innovation fund.
St Baker’s personal fortune is estimated at $76 million in shares and property. His innovation fund is a major investor in Brisbane-based Tritium, which is developing fast chargers for electric vehicles; smart energy device company Kortek; and Nth Degree, which has developed a way of printing LED lighting.
“These are businesses that could be billion-dollar companies one day,” he says.
St Baker, who was awarded an Order of Australia, enjoys playing a mentoring role to the young executives in charge of the start-ups. He says while start-ups often have great ideas, they cannot all be expert lawyers, accountants or financial controllers.
“Tritium was started by three PhD graduates who won a solar-powered car competition. For a while we thought we were going to lose money, but they now have contracts to supply their chargers to the US.”
Tritium has also established a subsidiary called Fast Cities Australia to develop a corridor for vehicle charging stations from Cairns to Adelaide. St Baker says the corridor will give prospective buyers of electric vehicles the confidence to not only use their electric vehicle for inner-city travel, but intra-city travel as well.
St Baker Energy Innovation Fund chief executive Rodger Whitby says that, despite his boss’ success in business, he is a humble and generous personality.
“He often says to me he has been very lucky to be successful,” Whitby says. “But it is really because he has worked so hard.”
He says St Baker is not a slave to the latest trend or idea.
“It is good to see Trevor prepared to back ventures that have some risk to develop products that the world needs.”
Despite his commitment to renewable energy, St Baker is not backing down on his view that coal still has a long-term future in the power industry.
“These renewable targets are not practical,” he says.
“Big power plants will still be needed to pick up demand when the wind stops or the sun goes down.”
He is concerned that moving into renewable energy too quickly may cause electricity price spikes, something that has already been seen in South Australia.
“Australia built its businesses and its jobs on cheap electricity,” he says. “That is why the smelter came to Gladstone and the steel mills came to other cities. If electricity prices are going to go up, there is no reason for them to be here.”
In the meantime, he is prepared to play his part, at home and in the boardroom, to make renewable technologies a reality.