Consumer advocates call for smart meters as power grid shows signs of fragility

In the wake of today’s power grid emergency, consumer advocates are calling on power companies to put power in the hands of the people and deploy smart meters to prevent future outages.

electricity pylons
Photo: 123RF

Transpower issued an alert to power companies just before 8 a.m. after one of Contact Energy’s gas turbines in Stratford failed to start, Genesis Energy reported an outage at its Huntly plant and production wind turbine went from a predicted 170 megawatts to just 30.

Transpower chief executive Alison Andrew said the industry had made many improvements following the grid emergency last August which saw 34,000 homes cut off without warning on the coldest day in the month. year.

“You can never say never because things can happen, but we are managing the grid and the electrical system to avoid that as much as possible.

“And this morning was a really good example of how we have operational issues on production, but we were able to react well with the line companies – we’re all working together – to manage the controllable load so consumers aren’t not affected.”

This morning, Transpower asked people to reduce their electricity consumption if possible, as electricity production is insufficient to comfortably meet demand.

However, Andrew said Checkpoint that Transpower had not asked customers to shut off their power.

“No one was affected by this, we didn’t actually ask consumers to hold on…we didn’t send out a request through social media or media channels because we were able to handle the situation without it.”

Andrew said it may be necessary in the future to ask people to conserve their electricity use in similar situations.

Some customers reported that their hot water had been cut following the mains emergency this morning, but Andrew said this was authorized by the power line companies and not by Transpower.

Line companies commonly used the “ripple control” method of periodically turning off hot water systems when dealing with power grid problems, she said.

Transpower’s forecast had shown demand would be “tight but manageable” this morning, but the outage of two power stations meant it had to rely on power reserves, Andrew said.

Along with the failure of the Genesis Energy and Contact Energy generators, the third factor in Transpower’s unexpected drop in electricity production was attributed to a drop in wind power production.

The Electricity Authority’s report on power outages last August raised concerns about the accuracy of the industry’s wind forecasting capabilities.

Andrew admitted Transpower needed to improve its wind forecasting ability, but said that was not a major factor in today’s incident.

“That contributed to the situation where the forecast went from 90 megawatts down to 30 megawatts, that’s a 60 megawatt drop, normally the system would easily be able to sustain that kind of variability, that’s the combination of the three events that caused problems,” she said. .

She said Transpower’s response to the grid emergency this morning was aided by an industry-wide event held several weeks ago to practice a similar scenario.

In its final report on unnecessary outages published in April, the Electricity Authority concluded that Transpower was responsible for coordination and communication problems.

The regulator said following the ministerial investigation it was monitoring Transpower more closely and making sure it was following the rules.

The Electricity Authority’s head of monitoring and compliance, Sarah Gillies, said she was aware yesterday that supply could be ‘tight’.

“So as a regulator we obviously work very closely with Transpower, they kept us informed and the way they handled the situation this morning is exactly the way we needed it handled, so we are very happy with the way she went.”

Contact Energy has two 100-megawatt fast-start peak units in Stratford, but one has been out of service since it burst last year and the company is still waiting for a replacement to arrive from Europe.

Generation director John Clark said Contact does not yet know why the remaining unit did not start this morning.

“The pilot light came on but when we went to turn it on completely, the gas went out.

“Our priority is always to make sure the stations can operate safely. While we are frustrated, we are working on everything and talking to the manufacturers involved to resolve this issue in the safest and fastest way possible.”

Genesis Energy said an electrical fault on a fan in a Huntly unit caused its problem, but it expected it to be fully operational for peak demand tonight.

Electrical equipment.  The energy meter is a device that measures the amount of electrical energy consumed by a residence, business or electrical appliance

A smart electricity meter
Photo: 123RF

However, consumer advocates argue the industry should do more on the demand side of the equation.

Energy consultant Molly Melhuish said households in many other countries have been able to use smart meters for years to take advantage of cheaper off-peak rates – but retailers here aren’t interested.

“They want to sell more electricity and they don’t want to prevent domestic consumers from consuming more of it, including at peak times.”

Michael Jack, director of the University of Otago’s energy program, warned that blackouts were more and more likely to occur as the country moved towards its goal of 100% renewable energy, because wind and solar power were less predictable than fossil fuels.

The solution was to “unleash demand flexibility”, which some power companies do in a crude way with so-called ripple control to switch off hot water tanks remotely.

“You could do it in a much more sophisticated way with things like the ‘internet of things’ where you might be able to control your hot water tank, all the batteries you have in your house, vehicle charging electrical, building heating systems, just to vary your demand.”

Some line companies wanted to reduce demand to avoid building new lines, and some of the newer players in the retail market were innovating.

However, the large incumbents were less motivated to change.

It would probably take the government’s contribution to accelerate these kinds of changes with new regulations, he said.

Nicholas Willis

Nicola Willis, spokesperson for National Energy
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National energy spokeswoman Nicola Willis said the energy minister’s main job was to “keep the lights on” – and the grid emergency showed that was in jeopardy.

“National was clear – we thought the decision to stop oil and gas exploration was wrong and we are now seeing the consequences.

“We are now importing more coal from Indonesia than ever before and we are seeing greater insecurity in our energy supply as generators are less able to turn to gas for a solution.”

However, Energy Minister Megan Woods said she was confident the system was working as it should.

“I think what we’ve seen is that the system actually worked. Some of the lessons from August 9 have been implemented – ripple control has been rolled out widely, which has relieved that.

“And the advice I got is that there’s about 440 megawatts of spare capacity coming into the system tonight.”

That was more than enough to ensure the lights – and heaters – would stay on tonight, she said.

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