Surprise power cuts could happen again

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Opinion – Molly Melhuish: Yesterday’s power cuts could have been prevented because the extreme cold weather had been well signalled days in advance by the Met Service. They could happen again this winter.

All the New Zealand-wide crises since 1992 were caused by low lake levels. Six Auckland blackouts since 2001 were caused by failed power lines. Yesterday’s is the first in many decades that was caused by winter peak demand.

One reason for the high peak is that most of New Zealand’s wood burners have been replaced with heat pumps, which become very inefficient in the coldest weather. We must therefore plan ahead NOW for more peak power shortages – two years ago the coldest day was in September.

Here’s what we should do:

Communication: the highest peak occurred at 6:20 pm. Transpower could have put out a call on the 6 o’clock news to please immediately turn off unused heaters, lights, and even heated towel rails. This is officially called a “conservation campaign”, which is explicitly ruled out by regulation.

Generators: Was Huntly going at full power? The EM6live site seemed to show it was at only around 2/3 capacity. Why did Genesis hold back, if indeed they did? The winter blast had been forecast days ahead. Were any gas-fired power stations kept off-line, and if so, why?

Local lines companies: are the key players in power shortages. Bring back ripple control of hot water, or any of the modern system that do the same thing. Prepare now for a likely repeat of yesterday before winter ends.

Long-term response to winter peaks – energy efficiency in houses is the cheapest way to reduce winter peaks, and makes big differences to people’s health. And there are new technologies being developed in New Zealand for clean home wood burning, clean enough for mid-cities and smoky valleys.

EECA is the government department that could promote these solutions, to protect both our power systems and people’s health. Government needs to instruct EECA to move to protect New Zealanders from future blackouts.

Molly Melhuish is the former convenor of the Domestic Energy Users’ Network (let The Buzz know if you find a link/site for this group)

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