October 4, 2008

Risk of Blackouts ‘Being Ignored’

By WEIR, James

THE Government has ignored the warning signs of another power shortage and the risk of blackouts is now "one in five", independent energy consultant Bryan Leyland says.

"We are in a power shortage now, with industry backing off use," Mr Leyland said yesterday.

A public power savings campaign had not been started yet because the Government considered that "political suicide", he said. "They (the Government) are ignoring the risk and praying it won't happen, which is irresponsible."

Hydro power lake levels are at their lowest since the 1992 electricity crisis and consumers could be just three weeks away from being asked to cut their power use if there is no rain or if a big power station fails.

Hydro storage is just 58 per cent of average, having fallen from 74 per cent at the start of April, because of drought in the South Island.

The situation has been made worse by the permanent closure of the New Plymouth power station and a shortage of capacity on the Cook Strait cable.

Wholesale spot prices have been up to six times higher than the average at times, encouraging big users to cut production.

But Major Energy Users Group executive director Ralph Matthes said if lake inflows kept going at 1992 levels blackouts could start within a few days.

"Of course, it could rain, but in winter you're more likely to get snow into those (South Island) catchments," he said.

Mr Leyland said the country needed to reduce demand on the power system by 5 per cent to 10 per cent, not just the 1.5 per cent achieved by the Bluff smelter's cutting 10 per cent of its use.

In the past, there would have been a public call for power cuts by now, not just a request to big users to lower demand.

The industry had failed to manage shortages in four of the past eight years.

The design of the market system did not reward those who built a reserve power station to be used when lakes were low, he said.

In fact, the power firms, mostly state- owned, made more money when there was a shortage of power and high wholesale prices.

Meridian said this week that households should prepare for price rises, because there was a "cost" to shortages.

As well as the impact of the drought, the Government was discouraging new gas- or coal-fired power stations, with a 10-year ban proposed.

In the past week, wind power produced just 0.6 per cent of New Zealand's power needs when it should have been 2 per cent based on its capacity.

Yesterday, the electricity industry launched a website for the public to check supply and demand and get power-saving tips. Called Winterpower Watch, the website comes from the Winter Power Group, assembled by five major power companies and Transpower, as the independent system operator, to oversee electricity supplies this winter.

The website suggests turning hot water down to 55 degrees celsius, and turning appliances off at the wall, among other tips. "Take a shower with someone," it also suggests.

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