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Rothschild urges uk utility to partner in australia { January 22 2004 }

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UK utility seeks partner for gas pipelines
January 22, 2004

National Grid Transco Plc, the UK's largest utility, said it may seek a partner to bid for some of Epic's natural gas pipelines in Australia, which have a book value of $3.6 billion.

National Grid, advised by NM Rothschild & Sons, is considering electricity and gas transmission investments in Australia, said Chris Spencer, the company's managing director in Australia. It has studied Epic and Duke Energy's local assets, among others, he said.

National Grid, which is based in London, is building the $700 million power cable between the mainland and Tasmania, its only investment in Australia.

Offshore utilities such as Singapore Power are also investing in Australia, where energy demand is projected to rise by 2.1 per cent a year from 2006.

"The Australian economy is growing and there is obviously demand for increased investment infrastructure," said Geoff Swier, chairman of Farrier Swier, a utilities consultancy in Melbourne. "When you look at it against other regulatory environments in Asia, it's also reasonably easy to understand."

National Grid Transco is no longer working with Credit Suisse First Boston on a sole bid for Epic's assets, Mr Spencer said. It was still "a possibility" that National Grid would join another party to bid for some Epic pipelines, he said, but declined to comment on potential partners.

"We remain interested in opportunities in Australia," Mr Spencer said in an interview. "We are doing work at the moment with Rothschild to look at opportunities generally in the market. We're talking to a couple of people."

Epic, based in Perth and controlled by El Paso Corp and Dominion Resources, is seeking bids for its Australian pipelines. And Duke Energy, the biggest US utility, is considering bids for its Australian pipelines and generators, alongside a public share sale. Origin Energy has said it may sell its stake in the SEA Gas pipeline once the pipeline's operations have been proven, while CMS Energy is selling its Australian assets.

"There are potentially a lot of assets up for sale at the moment, so it's not surprising there is a bit of interest around," said Mark Legge, associate director infrastructure and finance ratings at Standard & Poor's in Melbourne. Australia's energy regulatory "environment has been fairly stable for the last few years so perhaps that means for these companies it's worthwhile looking at".

Genting, Asia's biggest casino operator, and Sime Darby are among bidders for a $630 million stake in Yallourn Energy, now owned by CLP Holdings.

Singapore Power and Canada's Enbridge may bid for Epic's pipelines, while Cheung Kong Infrastructure may be interested in the Australian assets of Duke Energy.

National Grid Transco decided against making a sole bid for any of Epic's pipelines, Mr Spencer said. "It's not the size of the transaction, it's how the transaction fits into other opportunities National Grid Transco is looking at in other areas of the world," he said. "We think it's a very attractive business, the timing is just not quite right for us."

The Basslink project, National Grid Transco's current investment in Australia, is due to come into operation in November 2005, in time to allow as much as 600 megawatts of Tasmanian electricity to be exported to Victoria during the 2005-2006 summer. Laying of the 360 km cable is due to start in April.

"Basslink gives them a bit of a toehold in the Australian market," said Alistair Parker, director at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Sydney. "If they were interested in anything else, it would be more likely be something that builds a serious presence in Australia rather than just doing the odd small transaction."

Last November National Grid Transco posted an increase in first-half profit to 399 million ($944 million), excluding one-off items, helped by cost savings after a $US17.7 billion takeover of gas network operator Lattice Group. It said it started the process of selling one or more of its UK local gas distribution networks.

Chief executive Roger Urwin's expansion plans in the US have faltered, following the stagnation of US power prices and the US's largest ever blackout, on August 14, for which the company's Niagara Mohawk unit was originally blamed.


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