Tuesday, June 13, 2006



Auckland power cuts

I don't live in Auckland, so I have no exciting tales to tell about yesterday's power cut and how it was (or wasn't) the end of civilisation. What I do have to say, however, is going to annoy a lot of Aucklanders. And that is "bad weather happens, get over it".

Down here south of the Bombay Hills, we understand this fact, and while we don't like losing our power or ADSL connections, we know that its just one of those Bad Things that happens, like earthquakes, or National governments. Sure, you can bitch about it, but expecting it to change is simply playing Canute.

As for all the talk about how there is a "single line" into Auckland, and how this is an unacceptable vulnerability, it is no different anywhere else in the country. Every electron going into Wellington, for example, comes through Haywards, and there is scope for a similar act there to plunge the entire lower North Island into darkness (particularly when we are drawing on power from the southern hydro lakes over the Cook Strait cable). But you don't see Wellingtonians complaining about their vulnerability; we just accept it as a fact of technological life.

Palmerston North is slightly better off, because we have at least 150 MW of wind up there on the hill feeding directly into the local grid. But there'll still be a single point of failure there somewhere, and when the wind isn't blowing there'll be a SPOF somewhere (out by Bunnythorpe, I think) where the national grid connects to the local.

Christchurch? Everything goes through a big substation out past Hornby way, and if something happens there, it gets very cold and very dark in most of Canterbury.

Or of course there's always that lovely big single point of failure down there at Benmore, where the power goes into the grid at the first place.

Everywhere is on a "single wire" - it's a natural consequence of the top-down heirarchical design of our electricity network, where power flows from the national grid, through regional ones and down to local networks. Everyone accepts this - except Aucklanders. I can only suggest that they get over themselves. And if they can't, and want to move to a radically decentralised "web" model, with more local generation and greater crosslinking, then I suggest they stump up and start paying for it. But the chances of that happening are about as great as the chances of them paying for their own roads...

26 comments:

We do pay for it. I suspect that Auckland represents a large part of the (non-aluminium smelter) electricity use in the country, and we pay full whack for it. There isn't a hidden subsidy for Auckland electricity, unless there's something going on I'm not aware of.

And there's a much bigger economic cost if a large city loses power, than a smaller settlement - more people for a start, and important infrastructure that affects people outside the general area (for instance, with the railway signals out, I doubt much freight got through Auckland).

Posted by Rich : 6/13/2006 01:12:00 PM

yeah i got off my ferry and into the city at about midday and none of the traffic lights were working and pedestrians were just walking across the road in front of cars, and i thought "Oh my god the revolutions started!" but i was quickly disappointed

Posted by omar : 6/13/2006 01:18:00 PM

Rich: I have no doubt that Auckland pays for the grid connectivity it gets. What I'm talking about is their paying for the redundancy they are demanding.

As for the economic cost argument, I think that for a one-day cut such as this it is mostly bogus. Sure, retailers lost a day's revenue - but that revenue is simply shifted into the future. The money is going to be spent sometime, somewhere - just not today. Production is a different story, but that's totally obscured by phrasing things as "lost business"...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/13/2006 01:21:00 PM

Omar: Did you see any abandoned shopping trolleys, or upturned cars on fire? It's not the end of the world without those...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/13/2006 01:23:00 PM

"Sure, retailers lost a day's revenue - but that revenue is simply shifted into the future. The money is going to be spent sometime, somewhere - just not today."

For many retailers - supermarkets clothing stores etc - absolutely, but restaurants or internet cafes or other time-sensitive businesses, probably not. Overall, the economy won't take a hit, because the money will be spent "somewhere" (as you point out), but it will definitely affact a lot of businesses.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 6/13/2006 01:51:00 PM

Luckily, unlike weather, National Governments are not 'just one of those Bad Things that happens'. They're one of those bad things that happen when the left stops doing its job properly by campaigning and organising.

My favourite part of yesterday's Auckland powercut news was Alastair Thompson from the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association apparently unable to go to work because the electric gate on his house would not open. Giggle.

Posted by stephen : 6/13/2006 01:58:00 PM

Actually there is a bit of a subsidy as lost electricity in those long wires from Benmore is charged as a uniform overhead.

I dunno, having all those office & managerial types not at work is probably an economic benefit :)

Posted by Phill Brown : 6/13/2006 03:12:00 PM

My favourite part of yesterday's Auckland powercut news was Alastair Thompson from the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association apparently unable to go to work because the electric gate on his house would not open. Giggle.

That's definitely funny. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of businesses in the CBD had fancy electric swipe locks that stopped working and had to try and hire security guards at short notice. D'oh!

It's not so much the failure that's the story - aren't private sector mandarins good at spending SOE cash when it suits them? - as the vulnerability it exposed. A long outage like the one in 1998 would be much more of an issue now than it was then. All those cheapo apartment buildings that break when the power fails ...

Cheers,
RB

Posted by Russell Brown : 6/13/2006 03:37:00 PM

I think the real problem is not that we lost power for 6hrs, but that if a real catastrophe happened at Otahuhu or elsewhere, the city could be out for months, as happened in 1998. I think this would have an undisputable economic impact.

I don't have any figures, but I'd suspect that substations are a fairly small part of the total cost of electricity supply and wouldn't send costs up by too much if we upgraded.

Posted by Rich : 6/13/2006 03:39:00 PM

I think the real problem is not that we lost power for 6hrs, but that if a real catastrophe happened at Otahuhu or elsewhere, the city could be out for months, as happened in 1998. I think this would have an undisputable economic impact.

This is the problem with heirarchical network structures, and its a problem everywhere. A major fire at Haywards or Islington, and a lot of people will be in the dark for a long time. The sort of big-arse substation equipment we're talking about is not easy to replace, and I have a nasty feeling it has to be imported.

Vulnerability can be reduced somewhat by promoting distributed and local generation. I understand there are several companies looking at gas turbines in Auckland, and if these can feed straight into the local grid in the same way that the Manawatu windfarms do, then it could ease the problem significantly. Of course, gas has long-term fuel issues, but its the users who will be paying for it, and at least its not as bad as coal.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/13/2006 04:26:00 PM

Well if you lefty bastards let the market determine the electricity infrastructure this would never have happened. Meddling in something the govt should have stayed out of caused this, not "weather"

Posted by PabloR : 6/13/2006 05:49:00 PM

Well if you lefty bastards let the market determine the electricity infrastructure this would never have happened. Meddling in something the govt should have stayed out of caused this, not "weather"

And you explain the New York blackouts of 1965, 1967 and 2003 how, exactly? And market capitalism played *such* a useful role in the California blackouts of 2001, didn't they? (Y'know, the ones that Enron deliberately triggered ...)

Aside from those examples, your reasoning is rubbish. Any case for replication of the Otahuhu substation is political, not economic. No network company in the world would consider that degree of redundancy as a return on capital. So maybe a new entrant could build, like, a competing substation? Yeah, just like that competing telecommunications network ...

Honestly, if you're going to proclaim the virtues of the market you should understand basic economics.

Cheers,
RB

Posted by Russell Brown : 6/13/2006 06:01:00 PM

piss poor engineering,ie,no ring feed so no way to back feed to the load side of the outed substation.So if anyone wants to point the finger I'd be pointing at Max Bradfords reforms of the mid nineties when the demand for shareholder returns hamstrung the engineering spend.

Posted by mj : 6/13/2006 09:41:00 PM

Amoungst Dick Hubbard's bitch-fest (he was hosting a dignitary, damnit) on the talking heads that night he noted that a couple of Auckland hospitals only had generator capacity available for another 2 hours.

Only 8 hours of fuel at the hospitals? Good god, what if it had been a real emergancy?


Not to mention that 8 that'll hit the capital one of these days and take out nearly the whole North Island power supply: plus the airport, harbour, roads, and rail into Wellington; preventing it from being fixed for months.

Posted by tussock : 6/13/2006 11:15:00 PM

I/S: yeah actually i did see some at least one abandoned trolley however no cars on fire. maybe next time...

Posted by omar : 6/13/2006 11:47:00 PM

Well, the power issue seems to have been adequately covered by earlier posters... so I just want to address what seems to be a pet peeve of many south of the Bombays....

You're paying for our roads, are you? Auckland currently has approx a quarter of all the population, (and therefore, taxpayers)... Earlier, it was a slightly smaller chunk, but its been a signifigant chunk for a long long time).

Over the last 2-5 decades, Aucklanders have been paying thier tax, but not getting an equivalent share in spending.... Aucklanders have been paying, for decades, for your roads, hospitals, schools, etc.

While I dont especially like the recent extra fuel taxes and how they are being applied, the fact that Auckland is only now starting to get some ot the expenditure thats been lacking, doesnt seem that unfair to me.

Ever driven in the South Island? Beautiful wide roads in excellent condition.... with only a quarter of aucklands population spread over the entire island... who payed for them?

Fletch.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/14/2006 08:50:00 AM

pablo,

I'll believe you if you can explain to me why a rational actor in the free market would build a backup line.

Do the cost-benefit analysis. A back-up might be worth it for the recipients of power. But it's not economic for the power company - you double your infrastructure to get redundancy, but 99.9% of the time only need one line. You can't charge double just because you've built a more expensive line: markets don't work that way. Whichever company ran the second line through would get great expenses, but hardly any profit. At best they create a price-war with the existing infrastructure.

Meanwhile, how would you run a second line in through somewhere else without using eminent domain to grab rights to some people's private property? Or did you expect someone to do this the REALLY, REALLY expensive way?

C'mon pablor. Lets see some detail.

Posted by Icehawk : 6/14/2006 10:59:00 AM

Apologies to Russell & Icehawk. As a lefty bastard myself I was simply missing the barking dog claptrap of Tim Barclay et al.

Posted by PabloR : 6/14/2006 12:32:00 PM

Pablo: They tend not to visit here that often - and the comments section is better for it.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/14/2006 01:12:00 PM

You said it I/S, though the arse licking posts they place on Dancing Rod's website are entertaining in a spew-inducing kind of way

Posted by PabloR : 6/14/2006 01:20:00 PM

We had backup generators running, we were on air, no complaints from this side.
What gets me is the after effect of this mess. Everyone is pointing the finger, no one seems to be stepping up and saying "Lets fix it, and this is how we'll do it."

Posted by Zeb : 6/15/2006 06:33:00 AM

That's because it would cost (according to Transpower) hundreds of millions of dollars for no commercial gain.

We live in an electricity market now, and redundancy for security of supply is guaranteed only as long as it is profitable.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/15/2006 08:54:00 AM

Every single dumb ass one of you has missed the BIG point of the power failure. GLF Helen asked who was responsible for the problem....duh she and Michael Cullen are, can someone please remind me again the dividends (read funny word for end user tax) that Transpower paid the government since deregulation, all the while allowing the national asset to be stripped to the bone with no maintence, capital improvement planning done to provide a secure network for the next 50 years.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/16/2006 12:03:00 PM

If business are concerned that Auckland has lousy infrastructure, perhaps they should stop relocating there. No-one forced Fonterra to move to Auckland, or Monteiths to move the bulk of their brewing up north. And both happened after the 1998 blackout.

It isn't the government's job to protect the business community from poor decisions.

Posted by Rodger Donaldson : 6/19/2006 10:56:00 AM

I'm just rather boggled that the transmission companies in the south didn't have enough replacement power pylons and wire on hand - for gods sake, you can lose fifty poles at any time down there to wind, rain, snow or earthquake, and every 20 years, you'll lose hundreds at a time. The lovely thing about a stack of 500 concrete pylons in a shed is that they don't go off, and they don't depreciate, so why the hell don't they have them?

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 6/19/2006 01:18:00 PM

They'd rather not pay for the shed?

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/19/2006 02:11:00 PM