Hard News by Russell Brown

Digital Day

Freeview - a free-to-air digital TV platform modelled on the one of the same name in Britain - will be officially unveiled at Parliament at midday. I can't tell you exactly what will be said, but my column in this month's Unlimited covers most of the bases and speculates on programming issues, which won't be covered today. Feel free to read ahead.

No Right Turn scoops the big media, other bloggers and the Opposition parties again. Can you say, 2008 deadline for historical Treaty claims?

Alasdair Thompson of the Northern declared on Morning Report yesterday: "What we need is a security of supply at competitive prices. Full stop." Yes, and I'd like free Internet and world peace, but I'm not expecting either right now. What Thompson is saying is that he wants a gold-plated service from Transpower, but he doesn't want to pay for it.

But whether things make any sense doesn't seem much of an obstacle to sounding off this week. Stuff had the government "being accused of ignoring warnings about the state of the national electricity system" and Nick Smith screamed himself hoarse saying the same thing in Parliament, but no one seemed inclined to spoil the story by pointing out that what happened isn't what the warnings have been about: ie, capacity, not redundancy; and that controversial capacity through the Waikato in particular. Smith himself has done a creditable job in snapping at the government's heels over security of supply, but he hasn't previously had a word to say about the newfound vulnerability of Otahuhu. Smith appears to back both increased gas-powered generation in and near Auckland (which seems essential), and the Transpower line through the Waikato, but unfortunately his colleague Judith Collins doesn't want Transpower's pylons ("steel monstrosities") in her electorate at all and backs such exotic options as an undersea cable from the South Island to Auckland. If they're going to accuse Labour of dithering, they really should sort that out.

I guess you could argue that a better regime would have seen new local gas generation producing electricity close to Auckland already, but I'm not sure if even that's true. For me, the real story is the remarkable lack of preparation, in both the public and private sectors, in a city which has been repeatedly warned of potential supply problems. Hospitals reportedly had only a couple of hours' power left when supply was restored. WTF was up with that?

For all the fevered talk about immediately setting to work on building Auckland another new substation on a parallel network, to be used when the power goes out for a few hours every five years, there simply isn't an economic case for it. And as Phill Brown of Otago University's physics department points out, it might not work anyway:

I'm not a transmission expert, but as a member of the IEEE I have a copy of their proceedings from last November, whose topic is power security (motivated by the massive 2003 power outage in the NE US and Canada). Basically I can summarise the core of the 20 odd erudite academic papers with the statement that: Power Security is HARD.

Ironically it appears that parallel networks (as seeming to be recommended by just about all media pundits) will not necessarily improve reliability due to difficult-to-control cascade effects.

Lines upgrades will probably help, but without enormous investment in huge network overcapacity (for which I don't see business offering to pay) outages such as yesterday's are likely to recur.

I also get a little miffed at the constant harping on by Auckland business people about how Auckland is the engine of the NZ economy, it really is not.

Of course you can always just not live in Auckland ...

Hey. Steady on, Southern Man. Do you really want a latte invasion?

Ann said:

I too had a lovely day - out here in the country we are more used to power outage with the added bonus of lack of water and sewage to boot - but crazily enough if it hadn't have been for the loss of bfm transmission I would not have noticed - see funnily enough on this particular storm we did not lose power .

Just one point I would like to make is that we are hearing a lot about how we must get more power to Auckland and there is a great misconception that the 400kV line from Whakamaru - Otahuhu will fix said problem - yesterdays outage is a demonstration of how this is not the answer even had the new transmission line been in existence the outage would still have occurred as all the power is sourced through Otahuhu! Transmission alone is not the answer. Try generation in and around Auckland, try and HVDC link, but another transmission line through to Otahuhu - not the answer.

Karl Woodhead said:

These things happen, even in modern civilized societies. A four-hour outage is okay - 53 days, now that's another matter (as happened in the 90s). What got me fed up with it was Susan Woods' description of Auckland as an 'apocalyptic city'. I look forward to her going to Geraldine today to view the end of society as we know it.

Friends in Auckland I've emailed got on just fine and treated it as novel. The media, though, are a bit hysterical on anything to do with Auckland. For F's sake - last week the second item on the Thursday news on both networks was a traffic jam on the way to the mall!

Sure Wellington came across as a bit precious over the sanctuary funding thing - but Alasdair Thompson and his coterie are really starting to come across as a bunch of whiners looking for a handout (and incidentally - where on earth did he come up with the $50-$100m figure?). I would think more damage would be done to the economy if power couldn't get to Bluff (and hence Tiwai Point) than to Auckland.

Auckland is a great city and deserves to be a flagship for the country. It's civic leaders need to become a bit more resilient.

Meanwhile, Paul Reynolds noted a vulnerability in the CBD that escaped attention in the news media.

I was in Wellington, hearing news from my office in Fort Street as it came to hand . The big one for us was keeping the building secure during the outage. Like dozens of others in the CBD, we have one of those fancy zapper locks on the front door of the office - people come up to it - zap the magic eye and it lets them in of a morning.

It seems to default to whatever setting it is on when the power goes down - in this case open.

We didn't know this, so when the battery backup ran out at 10am - that's what happened - the front door was defaulted to open. As the staff had all gone home by that time, Helen , my co-director was left on her own and couldn't lock the door to secure the premises.

Solution? In partnership with the lawyers next door, we paid for the hire of a security guard to make sure we were secure from walk in sneek thieves - as did dozens and dozens of other small businesses in the CBD. That's of course if you could get one - because, even at $50 an hour, they were as rare as hens' teeth

Wellington DSL was also out in the place I was staying at. who have a Telecom Xtra plan. Mobile [Vodafone] worked fine right through.

Benjamin Franzmayr had a word or two about Telecom also:

Remember a year or so ago when Telecom were running TV adverts on how reliable their system was & how there were backups of backup & generators in case those fail etc?


Meanwhile, Steven Kempton was working at home in West Auckland, where there were not power problems and "the DSL was rocketing along at its usual piss poor speed."

Anthony Trenwith was mobile and thought - as I did - that more police officers on points duty would have been helpful.

Something must have happened to the officer who was on points duty at the Northwestern / Nelson St intersection. I drove through there at about 9am and he was there - along with another one at the Northwestern / Hobson St intersection. More officer's on points duty would have been advisable though. Only five major intersections were manned though - leaving the others to fend for themselves. You'd think that when the police swtich to crisis mode they'd let loose their desk jockeys and scoop up anything in a blue uniform to put to good use. I'm quite sure that we can do with out prosecutors, filing clerks, desk clerks and middle managers for a few hours.

Both Manukau and Auckland District Courts plus the High Court were down and out - the three busiest courts in the whole city. Their emergency power was only enough to prevent self-bludgeoning in the dark - not nearly enough for anything constructive. Manukau's natural light sources did allow for some minor matters to be dealt with but after a few hours the place was the quietest it's ever been in a work day morning. Oddly enough, the shopping centre across the road did have power and that's where most peple probably ended up.

What was most annoying though was the lack of information on what was happening, who was affected and how long it was likely to last. Auckland may get an "A" for resilience but that's offset by an "F" for communication.

Finally, I asked about what generators cost, and y'all answered. Raewyn Whyte was first in:

Generators per se are not terribly expensive. BUT you need one that will output clean power if you want to run a computer with it.

GMC Generator from Bunnings around $250 runs your beer fridge and lights, but NOT the computers nor the consumer whiteware which require surge protection (fridge, washing machine, microwave, DVD player etc.)

Honda generators which deliver clean power start at $1800.

Adam Hunt was already in there:

$90. Got mine from a pawnbroker in Panmure about a month ago, to much piss-taking from the missus.

Went and got it, plugged in the fridge and laptop (didn't need the lights), put the BBQ bottle in the emergency gas heater I keep in the garage, and generally felt very smug.

She hasn't said a word.

Yes, I am a sad bastard who doesn't trust reticulated anything ... guess it comes of a) growing up in rural England where we used to get snowed in for about a week each year and b) being in IT all my life ... I assume everything's going to break ,,, ;-)

BTW, my DSL worked right through, but I found the Vodafone network distinctly dodgy. And work had various problems (Telstra!) apparantly. What do Telstra and Vodafone have in common? They both use Unisys for their datac entres...

Couldn't believe Mary on National Radio yesterday evening: she sounded like she was implying that it wasn't good enough that neighbours should help each other out, Gummint should DO something :)

Very worried Transpower would use this as a vehicle to push their power line thing, but impressed that they haven't. But one day surely we will realise that the entire network engineering function in NZ needs a good sacking: there are far to many old pommes (who built the National Grid) over here applying their antiquated bloody 50's thinking. And they seem surprised when those of us who have a rudimentary but _up-to-date_ knowledge of the topic don't just compliantly toe the line and accept their senile recommendations.

Logix reckons you just can't sell backup power anyway:

I was in the business of providing automation services around backup generators for some years. In the end I gave it away as lousy business because no-one actually wants to spend any money on them. The only people who do a proper job of it are the hospitals who are required to do so under the Building Act.

And Trevor Hunter outlined the serious generation option:

Hey, I work for a generator installation and maintenance company. Could do you a deal on a gen to run the house, including installation for around $20,000. I think it might be a little less, but it depends on the cost of the generator. This is a super silenced set that could be run in a suburban environment with minimal noise disruption, and includes the changeover contactors that will automatically switch from mains to generator in the event of a power failure.

You just see a 15s break when the power fails, and a 1s break upon return. By adding a UPS to your office you could quite happily carry on all day and never notice the disruptions. But then how much fun would that be. Staff at one site I visited yesterday hated me for keeping their business running when everyone else was going home.

Had a manic day yesterday checking on gensets in our area - some of our mechanics were out until 8pm doing diesel deliveries and check-ups all over the CBD and suburbs.

Still, at least we got it back on by last night: my buddy in Whitecliffs in Canterbury was stuck at home with his 7 1/2 month pregnant wife, the yard buried under 2 feet of snow, with no power for 24 hours.

So no, we didn't really have the apocalypse up here …