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Grid crisis: Power cuts possible as cold weather sees demand spike, Transpower issues warning

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Kiwis are waking to freezing temperatures this morning and the threat of rolling power outages due to a nationwide grid emergency on the coldest day of the year.

Christchurch, Twizel and Mt Cook Airport were the coldest spots in the country this morning, dropping to a bone-chilling -6.4C around 5.30am, according to MetService.

Alexandra wasn’t far behind at -5C, while Taumarunui was the coldest town in the North Island at -4.6C. Palmerston North was at -3C, Masterton at -2C, Levin, Taupo and Paraparaumu were all around -1.5C and Hamilton was at -1C.

But despite the icy temperatures, households have been told to conserve electricity and not use their heaters as much to prevent overloading the country’s power grid as energy demand outstrips supply.

The country’s grid operator Transpower issued a warning notice in advance, saying it did not have enough generation offers to meet demand between 7am and 9am Friday.

People have been asked not to use heaters or lights in rooms they were not using, not to charge electronic devices and vehicles and to delay using washing machines, clothes dryers and dishwashers.

The Minister of Energy has also urged New Zealanders to conserve electricity this morning. Meanwhile, Government minister and Act Party leader David Seymour has called the potential cuts “Third World stuff”.

Gas supplies down, Govt warned of wintertime crunch in Feb

The Consumer Advocacy Council (CAC) said Transpower’s warning was a “timely reminder for the industry and regulators to tackle the problem of securing reliable, year-round renewable energy supply”.

CAC chairwoman Deborah Hart said: “It’s disappointing this has happened so early in the winter, but it’s a timely wake-up call for the industry.

“We have a long-term challenge in New Zealand to manage winter peak demands as our population grows and the country electrifies.

“The council’s view is that fundamental change is needed to the wholesale market – there must be sufficient renewable energy available all year round.”

Energy Minister blames previous Government

Minister of Energy Simeon Brown blamed the former Government for this morning’s power shortage, laying the problem at the feet of the oil and gas ban.

Brown brought a chart to the House, showing the number of Transpower notices warning of generation shortages increased under the last Government.

“Unfortunately, the Government has inherited an increasingly insecure electricity market following the last Government’s decision to ban oil and gas exploration,” Brown said.

Minister of Energy Simeon Brown during Question Time in Parliament, Wellington, March 5, 2024. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
Minister of Energy Simeon Brown during Question Time in Parliament, Wellington, March 5, 2024. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

Coldest morning of the year

Yesterday morning was the coldest day of the year so far – and more frosty temperatures were expected today, with a likelihood this morning would be even colder.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) said the country was in the middle of a “winter-like surge”.

Temperatures in Auckland were forecast to drop to 3C overnight last night and to fall to 5C on Friday night. Frosts were possible around the city, MetService said.

However the Far North and the far South have escaped the coldest weather. Invercargill and Dunedin were both relatively balmy at 5.30am, sitting at around 10C, according to MetService.

MetService meteorologist Paul Ngamanu said a front had been moving through Invercargill, warming the city up after it dropped to a low of 7C just after midnight.

He said it was likely the front had stirred the air up, causing the warmer temperatures.

“What causes these cold temperatures is calm conditions and clear skies. That front has moved onto the far South and brought cloudy conditions [including for Invercargill] a 15-knot westerly, mixing the air up.”

The warmest part of the country was the Far North this morning, with the Hokianga getting to 13C around 5.30am and Cape Reinga at 11C.

Severe frosts, which MetService said happened when air temperatures dropped below -3C, were expected for much of Canterbury and the Central Plateau.

Yesterday saw subzero temperatures around the country: Lake Tekapo dropped to -7.5C. Middlemarch fell to -6.5C, Cass to -6.1C, Ranfurly to -5.6C and Lauder to -5.3C. In the North Island, South Waiōuru fell to -4.8C and the Desert Rd hit -4.4C.

‘Every little bit counts’: Transpower urges restraint

Transpower hosted two crisis meetings on the situation yesterday.

In a meeting at 3.30pm, attended by the Minister of Energy and other industry heads, a Transpower spokesman confirmed the grid operator had managed to “squeeze out” some additional generation capacity for today.

However, the extra generation would not be enough to avert potential outages this morning, the spokesman said.

“We’ve been talking to [the energy] industry, trying to get them to do more [power] generation,” he said.

In its warning notice, Transpower said: “It is forecast to be a very cold morning, and people should stay warm by heating rooms they are using and continuing to keep them warm. However, they could consider turning down the temperature slightly between 7am and 9am (by 1-2 degrees).”

Hot water cylinders in people’s homes would be switched off by line companies if necessary.

People reliant on electricity for medical reasons have been told to have a backup plan and to call 111 in an emergency.

Transpower said major industrial electricity consumers have also been asked to reduce their electricity usage.

Major users like Tiwai smelter, Glenbrook Steel Mill ‘doing their part’

Major electricity users like the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, Fonterra, the Glenbrook Steel Mill, the Macraes Gold Mine in Otago, and Amazon Web Services’ data centre have been encouraged to reduce their electricity usage if possible.

The group representing these customers, the Major Electricity Users’ Group (MEUG), told the Herald it had spoken to its members and was confident “they … are doing their part as well”.

“For customers, anything [work] they don’t need to do or any outages that they had planned, perhaps they could bring that forward [to between 7am and 9am],” MEUG executive director Karen Boyes said.

She also warned customers in the spot power price market would be hit hard.

“I told [members] it could cause potentially very high prices, and some of our members may choose to adjust production if they can.”

Boyes said the notice from Transpower was well in advance, which she said MEUG members would appreciate as they often took a long time to alter production and reduce power use.

Raphael Franks is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He joined the Herald as a Te Rito cadet in 2022.

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