* Minister in last-ditch bid to avert another grid emergency from 5.30pm
* Genesis Energy had dormant generators at Tokaanu and Huntly
* Power generators couldn’t/wouldn’t meet Transpower pleas for more
* Electricity Authority announces work on longterm security of supply
ANALYSIS: Transpower says it doesn’t have enough generating capacity available on Tuesday evening, and could be forced to issue another Grid Emergency Notice like the one that cut power to thousands of homes last night.
Energy Minister Megan Woods talked to Transpower chief executive Alison Andrew on Monday night, then held a crisis meeting with electricity network operator Transpower and the Electricity Authority this morning.
“Obviously, New Zealanders not having power on the coldest night of the year is not something that we find acceptable,” she said. “New Zealanders have a right to expect that on a cold night, their power will stay on and they’ll be able to keep the lights on and heat themselves.”
“There may still be a case that this could have been prevented…. Even if it really was a peak on an extremely cold night, it is still not good enough that we were not able to warm our homes.”
– Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister
Woods told media she had written to generator companies seeking assurance that every available generation unit would be switched on. It appeared that had not been not the case in the outages 12 hours earlier.
Genesis Energy had shut down its Tongariro hydro plant at Tokaanu because its intake screens got blocked by weed, in gale force winds. And despite 12 hours of pleas from Transpower, it had not ramped up the Huntly power plant’s third turbine – usually a key backstop when all else fails. “I want reassurances from Genesis that we’re not going to see maintenance issues like that occur again,” Woods said.
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Transpower declared a “grid emergency” at 7pm Monday, and asked distribution companies to reduce load on their networks – the first such crisis in 10 years. It came after 24 hours of escalating notices to generators, asking in vain that they bring more power online.
At least 20,000 households lost power entirely as high winds brought down lines and cold weather saw power use surge beyond generation capacity, Transpower said. And for nearly two hours, different power retailers turned to different tools in their kits. Some were able to turn off hot water directly; some reduced voltage; some were forced to resort to targeted or rolling blackouts. Parts of Whangārei, Auckland, Taupō, Waikato, Hawke’s Bay, Kāpiti Coast and Wellington were affected.
For those that had power, wholesale prices soared above $300,000 per megawatt hour. Some of that was passed on to consumers on the spot market.
WEL Networks, which supplies the Waikato, had posted on Facebook warning customers to expect rolling outages. “As a precautionary measure, all medically dependent customers are advised to action their back-up plans or go to Waikato Hospital if required.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she could not be confident that all the available generation capacity had come online. “And that is a critical question,” she said. “There may still be a case that this could have been prevented. We need to know as quickly as possible whether that was the case, because it means that we can target our solution.
“What happened was not good enough, even if it really was a peak on an extremely cold night, it is still not good enough that we were not able to warm our homes.”
Genesis Energy defended its dormant generation capacity, saying the market conditions had been highly unusual. The outages had been the product of a number of factors that coincided with a significant spike in peak evening electricity demand due to the cold snap being experienced across the country, a spokesperson said.
“Adverse weather conditions reduced our North Island generation capacity at both Tokaanu, where gale force winds earlier in the day pushed weed into the intake, and then a sudden decline in wind in the evening that affected central North Island wind generation – including Waipipi wind farm.”
She said the issues at Tokaanu should soon be resolved, as weather conditions improve and demand falls to more normal levels.
“There was no third Rankine operating as there was sufficient generation capacity available to the market, prior to the loss of generation at Tokaanu and sudden decline in wind generation that coincided with peak demand.”
– Genesis Energy
The usual two 250MW coal-fired Rankine units were pumping power into the market at full capacity.
“There was no third Rankine operating as there was sufficient generation capacity available to the market, prior to the loss of generation at Tokaanu and sudden decline in wind generation that coincided with peak demand,” she said.
“A Rankine unit takes several hours to become operational and would not have met demand during last night’s peak in the circumstances.”
But Transpower had issued its first customer notice early on Monday morning, then followed up with increasingly urgent requests for more generation. And on Tuesday, the grid operator is again pleading for generators to step up to meet demand, saying national residual generation is less than 200 MW again.
There’s no likelihood of Transpower lifting the customer notice that it issued at 9.18am Tuesday: “This notice will not be updated unless conditions worsen and a WRN or GEN notice is required.”
Shortly before issuing that customer notice on Tuesday morning, Transpower general manager Dr Stephen Jay said insufficient generation had coincided with record demand of around 7,100MW, between 6pm and 6:30pm the previous evening.
“We apologise to everyone who was affected last night,” he said. “It is fair to expect electricity to be there for people when they need it most, especially on one of the coldest nights of the winter.”
Transpower would work with the generation companies to understand why there was not enough electricity last night, to avoid a repeat.
“With the widespread cold weather, we had been looking ahead to the evening peak throughout the day,” he explains. “We expected things to be tight due to some major generating units being unavailable and signalled to the market that other generation was required, and that demand should be voluntarily reduced where possible.
“Unfortunately, this is what came to pass. The prompt action of local lines companies and others in reducing demand helped keep the system in balance and prevented even wider problems. Problems such as last night are very rare indeed and we will now be working with the sector to do all we can to avoid a repeat.”
Woods has set up a coordination team to liaise through the emerging crisis.
The brown-outs and black-outs coincided with the publication at 8pm of the sixth report from the International Panel on Climate Change.
It concludes many of the impacts of our lifestyle, industry and agriculture are now largely irreversible. We can save ourselves, but the seas will keep rising and the glaciers will keep melting for centuries.
So it was little surprise that critics of the Government’s climate change response leapt on last night’s outages as if they were an indictment. “This Government has declared a climate emergency, waged war on energy sources it doesn’t like, and tried subsidising those it does like, but at the end of the day comes night, and there is not enough energy,” said ACT’s energy spokesperson Simon Court.
Energy Resources Aotearoa (previously named the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association) claimed this showed the crucial importance of natural gas as a back-up, to keep the lights on and save people’s lives. Chief executive John Carnegie said: “Renewable energy is great but it can’t cope with current demand on a cold night.”
Carnegie is right to an extent; we don’t yet have sufficient renewables for when our greatest demand collides with our lowest supply; the hydro lakes are still refilling from the lows of earlier this year.
But Genesis has been running gas and coal turbines all year, at great expense to the consumer. They too have proved insufficient.
The power crisis also coincides with the announcement on Tuesday morning of an Electricity Authority project looking at how to ensure the electricity system remains secure and resilient as it evolves over the coming decades.
A big part of the answer is not about increasing supply. It’s about managing demand. That will be especially challenging, because some of the easy wins the Climate Change Commission had hoped for, like the closure of the Tiwai Pt aluminium smelter and the Taranaki’s Methanex plant, now look further away. And with the move from petroleum to electric cars, there will be greater pressure on the grid to charge those cars.
The particular challenges with renewables, that tend to be highlighted by the likes of Carnegie, the petroleum lobby, and Genesis boss Marc England, is that their power is hard to store. When the wind blows, the wind turbines crank up. When it’s sunny, the solar panels generate power. When there’s water in the lakes, the hydro turbines spin.
“People on the spot market – and there are quite a few of them – will have been badly hit.”
– Bryan Leyland, consulting engineer
The Government is pinning some of its hopes on the $4b Onslow pumped hydro storage project, to smooth over the dry years. But domestic and commercial batteries are also getting cheaper and more capacious with every year that goes by.
And businesses and households can manage their drain on the grid by timing their use for times when there is most power – and conveniently, when that power is cheapest.
Consulting energy engineer Bryan Leyland said there should have been enough spare capacity designed into the electricity generation network to allow it to keeping running when one or two big units were unavailable.
“But nobody has designed this system – it’s left to the vagaries of the market,” he told Newsroom. “We don’t have anybody responsible for keeping the lights on.”
Indeed, it could have been worse: the wind had not dropped away entirely. The North Island’s wind farms had kept contributing more than 200MW to the grid.
He said power prices had soared last night, and some of that had been passed on to consumers on the spot market. “People on the spot market – and there are quite a few of them – will have been badly hit.”
So who is to blame? Notably, Transpower has apologised. And the generation companies have been asked to explain themselves to Minister Woods.
But Leyland looked to a third party, the Electricity Authority. “They note the problems once a year,” he said, “but they should have been warning everyone far more stridently that the system was running out of reserve capacity.”
“It has refused to contemplate the possibility that the market does not suit New Zealand conditions, and that all the generators have been behaving in line with the motivations our market provides them.”
He said the Authority should buy an insurance policy every winter, charging consumers then inviting generators to bid to stockpile coal or gas for the eventuality of a dry year. At present, he said, the market provided them no incentive to buy in expensive fuel they might not need. “In this market, if they all look after their selfish interests, then we will always be at risk of a shortage.”
“A goal of 100 percent renewable electricity generation represents a material increase in renewables, such as wind and solar generation, over current levels. This presents new challenges to the operation of and investment in the electricity system, and to maintaining a secure, reliable and resilient electricity supply.”
– James Tipping, Electricity Authority
Announcing the Electricity Authority project, its chief strategy officer James Tipping said the work supported New Zealand’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and the Government’s aspiration to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
“The Climate Change Commission’s final advice calls for large increases in electrification, including in transport and process heat,” Tipping said. “A goal of 100 percent renewable electricity generation represents a material increase in renewables, such as wind and solar generation, over current levels.
“This presents new challenges to the operation of and investment in the electricity system, and to maintaining a secure, reliable and resilient electricity supply.”
Tipping said electricity systems worldwide, including New Zealand, had been designed on the assumption that a material proportion of generation came from fossil fuels. Supporting services to keep the power system stable were typically provided by a range of long-established technologies.
“Moving towards 100 percent renewables in New Zealand, and the uptake of new technology, present opportunities for other technologies to provide the system services that have been supplied predominantly by hydro generation and supported by fossil fuels, particularly when insufficient hydro is available.”
“The electricity market’s design must support investment in and operation of the most appropriate technology for providing these services, while ensuring security and resilience of supply.”
He said the Authority had commissioned advice from Transpower as the system operator to identify how the national power system might evolve, and what changes would be needed to the services that supported electricity system stability.