State Energy Minister Ben Wyatt has been dealt a blow less than two months into the role after his chief energy adviser shocked the industry by announcing plans to step down.
Ray Challen, the deputy director-general of the Finance Department who has run the Public Utilities Office since its inception in 2012, told staff on Monday he would not seek to renew his contract when it runs out in July.
The decision comes after the departure this year of senior PUO official Simon Middleton and creates a headache for Mr Wyatt ahead of expected moves to reform the energy market.
It also comes as the McGowan Government prepares to roll the agency into Treasury to align it with Treasury’s own energy division.
Mr Wyatt said Dr Challen’s replacement would be chosen as part of broader changes to the public sector announced last week.
Dr Challen said it had been a great privilege to serve in the role, which he said had allowed him to “define and progress a much needed reform agenda for the electricity industry”.
Industry along with Opposition Leader and former energy minister Mike Nahan yesterday lamented Dr Challen’s decision to move on, saying it would create a void in the quality of the advice going to the Government.
Dr Nahan said Dr Challen had played a “vital” role in the reforms to WA’s energy market in the Barnett government’s second term, including a shake-up of the capacity market to make it more efficient.
Dr Nahan also said Dr Challen had a “unique” understanding of the State’s energy system and his advice to a new and inexperienced energy minister would be irreplaceable.
An economist, Dr Challen had his own consultancy before becoming a director with PricewaterhouseCoopers between 2009 and 2012.
He took up the job as head of the PUO in 2012 when it was created to replace the trouble-prone former Office of Energy, which was partly blamed for the bungled solar subsidy scheme.
“He has a depth of knowledge unique in the public sector,” Dr Nahan said. “I didn’t know him before he came in but, I tell you what, of all the people there I would have fought like hell to convince him to stay.
“We achieved some reform but the path to reform is like a treadmill — there’s a lot more to do and it’s highly complex.
“And because it’s a joint venture market that has public sector and private participants you have to have the process right.
“He never made a mistake.”
WA Independent Power Association chairman Richard Harris said Dr Challen would be a big loss and Mr Wyatt would struggle to find a comparable replacement.
“It is sad to see Ray go and all that knowledge and experience is not easily replaced,” Mr Harris said.