Minister Woods and Prime Minister Ardern have been reduced to asking a series of questions about why Transpower got major electricity providers to drastically cut power last night.
As storms go it wasn’t a major. The cold snap was easily forecast in the www.metvuw.co.nz 10 day forecast, and by NIWA, and by www.metservice.co.nz in its 3 day forecasts.
Both of them have today been reduced to asking questions and saying what what public communication was and wasn’t “acceptable”:
Unlike all the electricity crises since 1992, this one was driven by not enough peak supply. With more post-tropical lows powering up the southerly cycles in winter, this event sure won’t be the last time major cold snaps hit. Just a tiny momentary squeeze on our oxygen tube.
Nor are they historically uncommon.
As well as those that hit Otago, my father-in-law used to recount the 1939 one that stopped the Kingston Flyer in its tracks somewhere near Garfield.
We have very little direct democratic control over our electricity network. I don’t mean the privatised or semi-privatised bits. I mean the core Transpower network, regulated by the Electricity Authority.
Unlike Waka Kotahi NZTA, which sends out traffic network and crash warnings every day of the week and across the country, Transpower isn’t built for that. It appears it’s also not built for briefing or warning its relevant Ministers in time either.
Transpower’s GM Operations Dr Stephen Jay says that another outage could occur if this demand keeps up.
If we are to decarbonise our country, the electricity network has to be regarded and has to communicate at the same frequency and cut-through as the road network agencies do now. New Zealand will be shifting our entire transport reliance onto the electricity network within a decade. That is serious vulnerability.
After the 2018 storm in which most of western Auckland was cut off for weeks, there was a report. Nothing happened.
Yesterday the Minister of Climate Change came out with a statement saying “Right now, Ministers and agencies are discussing what action they will take to bring down emissions in their sector, which will form the basis of our forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan. We must use this chance to review progress and make sure the actions we are committing to will cut emissions in line with what the latest science requires.”
This government has at every step encouraged us to rely more and more on electricity as our primary energy source. So a failure of supply is a direct rebuke to that effort.
Transpower themselves consistently promote themselves as our key agency of decarbonisation.
So last night New Zealanders did what all their flats have been fitted out for in winter, and turned their heat pumps on because it was cold. If there is another major outage, the smashing of competing policy waves is going to get louder and higher. It took out about half of New Zealand’s population. None were warned.
Redoubtable energy commentator Molly Melhuish sets out what the government agencies should have done here, such as communicate to the actual people affected.
There will be another report of course. Maybe even a Cabinet paper for noting. Someone will mumble about the electricity price review. MBIE apparently will do a bit more coordinating. It’s simply no substitute for structural integration that forces electricity to be generated and sent where and when it needs.
Minister Woods has been asking similar questions for months. In April she said to an electricity conference that “I want to be assured that the current level of wholesale prices is commensurate with the level of scarcity in the market and the risk of a shortage later this year … and I want to know what, if anything, might be done to moderate wholesale prices without risking the risk of power shortages.”
Questions without adequate answers, months in advance. The shortages came, and no one was warned. Kinleith and Glenbrook are at risk of closure, and Norska Skog Nelson has just shut down.
So neither supply security nor price spikes are a surprise, or a short term thing.
Someone in government is going to have to reconcile James Shaw’s lofty demands with the practicalities of security of supply as set out in legislation for the Electricity Authority.
We have a major issue with electricity security in New Zealand, one which flies right in the face of our climate change response, affects every single household, many of our largest employers, and in future affects every single land transport passenger and driver.
Government, here this: electricity consumers and power companies alike are fed up with your ‘questions’.
The point of government is to generate answers. Answer, or those who were cold will remember and vote you out.