Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Suddenly powerless

It was a cold winter evening last night, around 2 degrees (35.6F) here in Hamilton, and it was predicted that the temperature would drop to -1 (30.2F). I was sitting in my chair watching TV, a warm blanket on me, and Leo lying asleep on my lap. Around ten to eight, everything went black.

My first thought was that someone had crashed into a power poll, and it would take only a few minutes before power was restored. A couple minutes passed, and no power.

It was very dark in my house, and my eyes just weren’t adjusting, so I decided to get up and get the torch from the kitchen. Leo didn’t want to move—even though dogs can see in the dark better than humans, possibly because they need some light to see, and there was none.

So, I picked Leo up and walked to the nearby sofa, and, after feeling around to find out at which end Jake lay, I sat down at let Leo jump onto the sofa. I separated a couple blades of the blinds and peered outside and saw there were no streetlights on, something that usually indicates a major power failure. Curiously, there were lights on at the AirB&B house across the street from me; I have no idea why or how, because they were the only ones in the entire area, as far as I could see.

It was still too dark for me to see anything, so I decided to use the torch on my phone so I could see to get to the actual torch. I knew I’d put my phone on the table next to my chair, as I always do, however, I couldn’t see a thing. I felt my way over there, and then the stuff on the table, the TV remotes, som papers, a glass I'd been drinking from, and so on until I found my phone and turned on the torch.

Once in the kitchen, I turned on the real torch, then reached into the cabinet above the fridge for a couple battery operated lantern things I had up there. I turned the first one on, but as soon as I picked up the second one, I realised it didn’t have any batteries in it. I put the batteries in, put it on it’s brightest setting, then carried it to the table by the front door, knowing it would reflect light into the house as well as light up the sidelight window by the front door (making it clear someone was home). I left the other lantern on the kitchen bench.

I had no idea how to find out what was going on: At our last house, I knew who the power supplier was (not the company we bought the power from, but the one that maintains the infrastructure). They had an app that allowed people to check network status, time until outages would be repaired, etc. I had no idea where to start.

I did what most people do these days: I turned to Facebook (my phone was nearly fully charged and I had plenty of data available). The community page for our development had people posting, as I expected, and someone had gone to the local infrastructure company’s FB Page and posted a screenshot  of their posy (Side note: if I hadn’t been put so off-kilter by the sudden loss of power, I would’ve known who handled the power infrastructure here because they came to my house to swap out the electricity meter).

The company said that Transpower, which handles sending electricity around the country, had declared a power emergency and urgently told power companies to reduce demand. At that point, the local infrastructure company threw the switch. Their FB Post made it sound like the power would be out for four hours, but what they apparently actually meant was that the rolling blackouts would be going on for about four hours. Yet another case of a company not using a communications professional to write clear information for the public.

With nothing much to do, and not wanting to use up my phone battery, I thought about just going to bed. It would, I thought, be around midnight before the power would be back on, and it was already getting cold in my house. I thought about reading a book or magazine using one of my battery powered book lights. I imagined myself putting on extra clothes and another blanket, and snuggling up with Leo and Jake to keep warm.

That’s when my power came back on, around 45-50 minutes after it had gone off. I found out that some areas were off for a few minutes, and I also found out that other companies in other areas merely used the “ripple” function to switch off electric hot water heaters while leaving the lights on. I guess we just got extra special treatment.

No one was happy about this, not those of us sitting in the dark on one of the coldest nights of the winter, and not the government. This morning, the Minister of Energy, Megan Woods, demanded answers by 2pm today. It turns out it was the result of "commercial decisions" and bad judgement.

Yesterday morning, Transpower warned of heavy demand that evening. This was due to the cable that carries electricity from the South Island to the North Island only operating at 50% capacity, with demand expected to be high due to the cold weather. No one told the public about this, as far as I know. Genesis Power, which runs the Huntly power station (not far from Hamilton), decided not to fire up the third gas-coal fired turbine, which takes several hours to do, because, they claim, they didn’t think it would be necessary.

Then, gale force winds drove weeds into the intakes of a dam in the Central North Island, forcing them to shut it down. At around that point, winds suddenly died completely at a windfarm in the Central North Island, and that’s when Transpower issued an emergency order to power suppliers, directing them to reduce demand (and apparently they took out far more demand than they needed to). No one warned the public about the impending blackouts.

The Minster of Energy said this afternoon that she has made sure that there will be adequate power generated tonight so we don’t have a repeat of last night’s fun. I would expect that there also will be changes in how the system is administered in the future.

Naturally, the Opposition couldn’t resist the opportunity to try to play yet more political games. The National Party continues to deliberately mislead New Zealanders, blaming the blackouts on the government banning new oil and gas exploration permits in 2018, but, as the Leader of the Opposition knows full well, it was only NEW leases that were banned, and the ones granted prior to 2018 are still usable.

She also knows, or should, that no new natural gas has been found since 2000, so the odds of anyone finding any were already slim to none, but, even if they had found some, it wouldn’t be available yet, and she must know full well that the problem wasn’t fuel, it was generating capacity, something that couldn’t have been helped by the National Party’s imaginary natural gas (that doesn’t actually exist).

When I saw the Opposition Leader say, “this Labour government virtue signals but can’t deliver”, it was obvious why she was being so disingenuous: SHE was “virtue signalling” to her base: “Look at me! I’m for burning fossil fuels!“ which plays well with the climate change deniers in her party (a curious tactic given how many of her party actually want action on climate change). Her party’s only solution to any of this was to “partially” privatise the electricity industry so their Holy Free Market™ could (not) take care of everything. And that is precisely how the planet got into this climate mess.

There’s room and a need for honest, good-faith debate about how we should move forward, what our renewable energy future should look like, and how we're going to deliver it, but the National Party is being dishonest and acting in bad faith. They need to clean up their own house first if they want to become part of the solution—for a change.

Update: There are allegations that the "commercial decisions" made by Genesis Energy to not turn on the third boiler was due to the company wanting to make more money from a shortage or electricity, something that Energy Minister Woods is particularly interested in getting an answer to. I would guess that the company did/will deny they did that, but Transpower is definitely investigating. At the moment, all we know for certain is that Genesis apparently decided to second-guess Transpower, and then ignore emergency orders. The questions are, why did they do that, and, more importantly, how can we make sure it never happens again?


Roger Owen Green said...

Sorry for the blackout. I've been in more than a few, though usually in August when it's too darn hot.
That said, we can't debate too long what our renewable energy future should be.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yeah, I think the debate is only legitimately around priorities—which problems we work on the hardest and fastest and first—and how we're going to pay for all the work. The fact that fighting climate change IS the priority is beyond debate, and so is the fact that we need to start taking measures to ameliorate the effects of climate change, like moving low-lying communities to higher ground, for example, away from rivers and ocean shores. There's still some debate on who is moved first and where, but not the need to protect people.