Bushfires expose major power grid risks


“This summer, I have to say, is reminiscent to me of the experience we had in New York after Sandy,” Ms Zibelman said, referring to the deadly and destructive Hurricane Sandy that swept the north-east of the United States in 2012 and forced days-long blackouts for hundreds of thousands of homes.

“We had many, many storms in New York, and we understood what it’s like when a storm hit the city, but nothing of the magnitude of Sandy, and that began a wake-up call to the government and to the industry that things needed to be done differently.”

Ms Zibelman was the former head of New York’s Public Service Commission.

Summer presents the most challenging time of the year for the stability of the National Electricity Market. On sweltering days power demand peaks as households switch on their airconditioners all at once. At the same time supply is often stretched as extreme heat strains the nation’s fleet of ageing coal and gas power generators sometimes causing sudden breakdowns, and bushfires pose the risk of bearing down on critical transmission lines.

Last weekend AEMO was forced to contract emergency back-up power to avoid enacting large-scale involuntary power cuts across NSW when a fire in the Snowy Mountains knocked out two substations in the state’s south and cut the NSW transmission link with Victoria. Days earlier, a similar blackout threat was narrowly overcome in Victoria amid scorching temperatures of more than 40 degrees.

Australian Energy Market Operator chief executive Audrey Zibleman says “we can take advantage of the diversity we have in Australia so that the size of the country becomes an advantage rather than a disadvantage”.Credit:David Porter

Ms Zibelman said the effect of the recent interconnector outages revealed the need for a much more “enmeshed” network. “We can take advantage of the diversity we have in Australia so that the size of the country becomes an advantage rather than a disadvantage,” she said.

Especially with the amount coal-fired power set to exit the market in the next decade, Ms Zibelman said the energy system required a “rebuild”. “And we have to do it in a way that makes the most sense economically and is good for the future in dealing with the situations we find ourselves in.”

Her calls come after AEMO last month released its draft Integrated System Plan – a roadmap for the development of the grid which identifies investments needed. Among AEMO’s priorities is a network upgrade in western Victoria to increase transmission and “unlock” renewable energy resources in the region, and a system-strengthening project in South Australia which AEMO states is “urgently required”.

Also in the draft report is a proposed 530-kilometre KerangLink transmission line allowing more energy to flow between Victoria and NSW. According to AEMO, the project would improve the resilience of the grid to the risk of ageing and increasingly unreliable coal-fired power plants in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley retiring earlier than expected.

Victorian Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio has been pushing her state and federal counterparts for approval of the project to be fast-tracked, calling for a decision to be reached by February. “We want to see KerangLink built as soon as possible,” she said.

Representing the nation’s power transmission companies which operate power poles and wires, Energy Networks Australia chief executive Andrew Dillon on Thursday backed calls for greater interstate connectivity to increase the resilience of the grid.

“This can be critical during natural disasters,” he said.

“More transmission infrastructure and interconnection will support new renewable generation investment, increase reliability and better link markets to keep costs down for customers.”

Power restoration has been progressing since the catastrophic bushfires on New Year’s Eve, but thousands of households in the NSW south-coast and south-east are still without electricity.

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Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor on Thursday said the government’s first priority was restoring electricity to customers who were without power

“Electricity network and generation businesses have mobilised hundreds of staff and are working closely with the Australian Defence Force and emergency services personnel to assess and repair damage and prepare to defend key assets from future bushfire threats,” he said.

“Their efforts have seen power restored to tens of thousands of customers across bushfire-affected communities in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.”

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