Climate change has already affected how electricity gets delivered to customers, and it’s only going to get more challenging. Vector’s Chief Networks Officer Andre Botha outlines what the lines company is doing to respond.
‘Australia is melting’, ‘US freezes to death’ and ‘Cat frozen solid thaws to full recovery’…. January’s weather-related news headlines were straight out of an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster.
Indeed, the great Polar Vortex of early 2019 was one of a series of extreme weather events that wreaked havoc around the globe, and New Zealand wasn’t spared. Although some insist Auckland’s ‘heatwave’ was a bit of an anti-climax, other parts of the country got so hot they smashed records.
But these extreme weather events were no joke. Not only were lives lost through extreme heat and cold, core infrastructure took a hit putting many communities at even greater risk.
Parts of Australia’s power grid buckled as thousands of people cranked their air con to full bore to deal with the heatwave, causing power cuts for hordes of steaming mad customers.
In the US and Canada, it got so cold people were being advised not to breathe too deeply when they went outside, and, if they had to go outside at all, do so knowing that frost bite could set in within 5-10 minutes.
The polar vortex was a stark reminder of how extreme weather events are becoming more frequent with the onset of climate change. We saw it in 2017 in the Edgecumbe floods, when 1600 people were evacuated and several homes were destroyed. And last year we felt it in April, when extreme winds caused unprecedented damage across Auckland’s network leaving thousands without power.
Climate change will continue to take lives and livelihoods away, and cost us financially too. When you add earthquakes into the mix it’s no surprise New Zealand is ranked second in the world for highest expected loss from natural disasters.
So, what is Vector doing to prepare Auckland’s power network for the future? Plenty. And it includes a mix of technology, collaboration and new ways of thinking.
A recent climate report commissioned by Vector found that wind is going to become the biggest climate change related weather risk to impact Auckland’s electricity network. This is problematic because we Aucklanders love our trees, and when you add extremely strong winds to trees near powerlines, you get broken powerlines – and plenty of them.
Vector is preparing for a windy future by investing in bundled aerial conductors. This involves bundling several powerlines into one, and fully insulating them to make them stronger and safer. While this will help powerlines stand up to trees and wind, no cutting-edge technology can compete with good old fashion tree management.
This means planting the right trees (preferably natives, their roots are typically stronger) in the right place (i.e. not under power lines!) and giving Vector more regulatory freedom to trim and remove problem trees where necessary. Vector’s Urban Forest initiative is all about promoting this approach. Ultimately, this helps reduce risks caused by windier weather, not just for our power supply but in terms of public safety too.
Coping with the heat
Here is a fun fact: the temperature and moisture in the earth surrounding an underground power cable has a direct impact on how much jandal said cable can handle. The higher the temperature and drier the soil, the more difficult it becomes for our cables and lines to meet your energy needs.
This becomes a growing concern for us as climate change continues to show up in the form of heatwaves and dry spells. Vector manages this risk by setting different capacity ratings on our assets depending on the weather conditions in summer and winter. Our control room crunches the real-time data to ensure our critical assets can cope with the heat. If they see capacity problems brewing, they can switch around the circuits to add more capacity to certain areas as required. You can help too, of course, by managing your own electricity usage – especially during a heatwave. That means when the temp hits 30+ you have Vector’s permission to push pause on household chores, and limit yourself to a fan, fridge and TV show of your choosing. You’re welcome!
If sea levels rise, Vector will move poles and wires to higher ground. If a wind storm strikes, we will rotate crews day and night until the lights are back on. There are many things we can and will do to make the network more resilient. But if we were to do everything all at once it would come at a huge cost that would blow out your power bill, so striking the right balance is key.
The cold hard reality is a gold-plated network won’t necessarily keep you warm (or cool) in an extreme weather situation. For example, if a flood in central North Island takes out Transpower’s network, Aucklanders may still lose power. If a string of dry winters empty the southern lakes – Aucklanders may still lose power. The back up plan to deal with these scenarios is currently to burn coal to meet demand, which, excuse my facepalm, costs a bomb and pumps the air full of more greenhouse gases.
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Instead, Vector is promoting the concept of ‘shared resilience’ to empower customers with their own energy resources when the going gets tough. Solar, batteries, electric vehicles and other clean distributed energy resources can buy you time during any kind of power outage. Imagine the community hero props coming your way if in an emergency you can use power from your roof to make tea, heat food and charge your neighbours’ phones. Imagine if everyone on your street had an EV with a reverse charge system that could power home appliances for a few extra hours. Now imagine if your home could link up with the local supermarket that had an industrial scale solar and battery system on its property? It would keep essentials running hot while repairs are underway, helping you stay in control when the shit hits the fan.
Getting ahead of the curve
We get that some vested interests out there just want us to ‘stick to our knitting’ and focus solely on our slice of the energy pie – the poles and wires that have served us well for decades, and will no doubt continue to do so. But innovation doesn’t happen without effort. And disruption doesn’t wait around, it starts slowly and then arrives suddenly. The environment is changing and the energy sector has got to change with it and be ready. While we’ll do what we can to maintain a network that can stand up to any type of weather, we’ll keep thinking outside of the box too.
Our recently announced vehicle-to-home trial in Piha is an example of this strategy in action, as is the continued development of our Vector DERMS platform. On top of all that – we’ve also set our own target of net zero emissions by 2030 to ensure we play our part in address the root cause of the issue. This move supports the international aim of holding global warming to less than two degrees centigrade relative to pre-industrial levels. It’s why we helped found New Zealand’s Climate Leaders Coalition, because we recognise the importance of reducing emissions in New Zealand, supporting the Paris Climate Agreement, and transitioning to a low emissions economy that will help create a positive future for all New Zealanders.
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