Sweat beads on the power lines

Australia’s heatwave showed an energy mix undergoing a transition that needs far more attention.

In the aftermath of the southern heatwave we have the hype-wave and there is every chance it is going to last rather longer, especially in the field of electricity supply.

Out in front is the solar sector, which has been quick to rush out “we saved you” type propaganda based, not for the first time, on a bit of fun and games with data.

In the wake of a sweaty week, there are a few points worth making.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the prospect of 100,000 homes and businesses losing supply in Melbourne and the rest of Victoria as the temperatures did their worst, a prospect raised by premier Denis Napthine, did not eventuate.

Also, the multi-billion dollar investment in network augmentation of the past five years paid off; supply units that had the collywobbles came good and Basslink, the interconnector across Bass Strait the Greens love to hate, delivered about 5 per cent of the Victorian load, which came close to matching the record demand of the last big heatwave on Black Saturday 2009.

The actual contribution of solar PV to Victorian supply during the worst of the weather is in dispute. The Energy Supply Association says it was 2 per cent. The solar soldiers say more.

Other sources say that solar’s contribution to curtailing demand in South Australia and Victoria combined was about 3 per cent.

Whatever, old-fashioned hydro power contributed more than solar, with Hydro Tasmania running 1500 MW of capacity between midday and mid-evening on the worst day of the heatwave to pour electricity across Basslink, once described by Bob Brown as a “fatally flawed” project that “will damage the state economy.”

Mind you, that was before Basslink was the conduit for coal-fired power reaching Tasmania during last decade’s Big Dry when the hydro dams’ storage reached dangerously low levels.

The other water-fuelled contributor, of course, is Snowy Hydro.

Naturally, there were some power delivery failures. They are to be expected, though never accepted, in such conditions.

Reportedly, some 20,000 homes across Greater Melbourne endured loss of supply as equipment buckled under the worst heat.

As usual, sadly, no-one felt any need to say a public word of thanks to the utility lineworkers, who worked furiously to bring back supply in truly rotten conditions.

These people do a physically demanding and potentially dangerous job in the worst of weather environments and are ignored by the media and politicians, who lose no opportunity to laud the equally worthy and more photogenic firies.

By and large, however, the grid of power stations, sub-stations, pylons and poles, switching yards and thousands of transformers, big and small (there’s one on a pole in your street), stood up to the test in the southern states.

(There was, by the way, a far different scenario in Buenos Aires, a sophisticated modern city like Melbourne -- only much bigger -- which copped the heatwave first in late December, leaving tens of thousands without electricity for more than a fortnight, a tribute to a national government that has mishandled practically every aspect of power policymaking, including suppressing consumer prices since 2002 and thus undermining network upkeep, an approach that now costs Argentine taxpayers $US11 billion a year in subsidies.)

It is also worth noting that one of the important contributors to the maintenance of supply during the worst of the heatwave were large industrial energy users (so often described as “the big polluters” in the greenhouse debate), which helped by turning off demand at critical times.

One big point to make about the heatwave experience, therefore, is that, not surprisingly, coping represented a combined effort by a range of players.

A second is that the ‘gold-plating’ network businesses by and large stood up to a pretty savage test.

A third is that it is premature to conclude that, while overall electricity consumption is declining, peak demand is also falling and that buckets of money therefore have been wasted preparing to cope with critical loads. We’ve heard a lot of this in the past two years.

A fourth point, and perhaps the most important, is that the federal and state governments have received a sharp reminder that their failure to get on with the job of pursuing a cut in critical peak demand is simply not viable.

The politics of addressing the issues are tough but the longer the necessary steps fail to be taken, the bigger the problem becomes.

There’s something else worth mentioning, too: when all’s said and done, more than 90 per cent of the electricity that helped southern Australians and western Australians (and before them Queenslanders) cope with this summer’s hellish weather has come from conventional coal, gas and hydro power generators.

The generation mix is changing, and will continue to do so, but there needs to be more care and attention on an efficient transition rather than the feel-good stuff. 

The first power directive in modern society is to focus on reliability and security of supply.

The poor darned Argies can tell you that.