Editorial: Transpower's Auckland grid a power cut waiting to happen

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Phrases like "transmission grid" and "energy infrastructure" are not really calculated to get the blood pumping. But when the power goes out, you don't need to be a specialist in the reticulation of high-voltage electricity to know what's going on.

For Aucklanders, this week's power cuts - a 2-hour blackout on Tuesday when a transformer failed at the Penrose substation and a much smaller, deliberate cut the next day to relieve pressure on the substation's single remaining transformer while repairs were being carried out - had a chilling sense of déjà vu. It was hard not to think of the June 2006 outage which affected about 700,000 people (more than half the region's population) or the much more catastrophic outage in 1998, when for five long weeks much of the city's central business throbbed with diesel generators and looked like a war zone.

The outage meant more than a few cappuccinos going unfrothed: it forced hospitals to cancel operations; factories, already under pressure from the recession, to halt production; staff to lose precious pay.

The chief executive of the lines company Transpower, Dr Patrick Strange, reacting to a breakdown at the Otahuhu substation which - freakily - also occurred on Wednesday, said that "it happens from time to time but we're working hard to get it fixed". That seems an unduly blithe assessment, coming as it does from a man who is paid more than $2400 every day of the year and in a week when the state-owned electricity generator Meridian announced a 6.5 per cent increase in power bills.

The home page on Transpower's website, headed "Keeping the energy flowing", refers to the company's "seamless delivery of bulk electricity": he might have had the decency to blush.

A failsafe transmission system with backups for every contingency would be prohibitively expensive. Best practice demands minimising the likelihood of outages at the same time as improving management and repair systems when things do go wrong.

But a key part of minimising the likelihood of failure is achieving a sensible balance between maintaining and replacing ageing plant. In this respect, Transpower knows it is underachieving, although it is keeping pretty quiet about it. As a story in our pages this morning reveals, the company last year commissioned a report by the multinational DuPont and BW Consulting, a Nevada-based firm that specialises in modelling and analysing stress within finite systems.

It makes grim reading. So many assets are "rapidly approaching end of life", it says, that there is a risk of "system integrity [being] compromised" unless there is "an assertive plan to replace ageing assets".

Shorn of its consultantspeak, the report depicts the network as little more than a succession of power cuts waiting to happen. It does note that the company and its contractors are "a workforce [with] an innovative approach to the solving of problems", which is a nice way of saying that there is plenty of No-8-wire ingenuity to draw on, but it says that Transpower places too much reliance on "repair and refurbishment".

The fact that the 2006 fiasco was caused by the rusting through of a $5 steel shackle might argue against such confidence in the maintenance model, but the general point remains: this is a grid that is, if not precisely on its last legs, getting pretty arthritic in most of the major joints.

Transpower has not made a secret of the report, although it is tucked away on an obscure part of its website. But neither has it drawn attention to it in a way that a company committed to the welfare of its customers should have done. It is tempting to wonder whether the profit-driven SOE model (Transpower, like Meridian, is state-owned) creates pressure to divert attention away from likely problems: the market "reforms" in electricity have scarcely been a resounding success and, although modern corporates revile the civil servants who ran the NZ Electricity Department before 1987, they did keep the power on because that, not making profits, was their job.

Transpower needs to come clean with the public about how bad things are and accept the Government's commitment to an upgrade programme that can make the electricity supply to the country's economic powerhouse truly secure. We don't need more power cuts.

- Herald on Sunday

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