Fire, storm, flood, blackout: Australia’s electricity sector needs better disaster response

23 January 2020
In the wake of unprecedented climate-induced disaster, Australia’s electricity sector urgently needs to learn from Con Edison’s response to Hurricane Sandy on how to plan for and respond to the aftermath.

By Rosemary Lyster, Professor of Climate and Environmental Law, The University of Sydney Law School

On 10 January, the chief executive of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), Audrey Zibelman, likened Australia’s bushfires to the 2012 Hurricane Sandy disaster which left over eight million people without power. She warned that this is a ‘wake up’ call for Australia’s east-coast grid operators as communities lost power when bushfires destroyed power lines and poles, transmission lines, including interconnectors between states, and substations.

This wake up call comes at a time when participants in, and regulators of, the National Electricity Market are already grappling with how to manage the dramatic transformation across the entire system – generation, transmission, distribution and retail. Amongst others, this includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the move away from coal-fired power, and the expectation that by 2050 30-45% of Australia’s electricity will be generated by households, which may also be effectively off the grid. The Australian government’s recent focus has been on reliability and lowering electricity prices for consumers while scrapping the National Energy Guarantee, which specifically linked these goals to reducing emissions from the sector.

To meet its Paris target, the Australian government needs to focus on emissions from this sector, but it also has a fundamental duty to protect the grid from disaster. The 2018 National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework warned of the electricity sector’s exposure to more frequent and intense natural hazards, and provides a national approach to reducing the risks. It stated that by 2019 a National Disaster Risk Reduction Implementation Plan would be in place. Instead, we read reports of how no substantial action has been taken by the Morrison government over the past eighteen months. Of course we also need to know whether state governments have implemented their Critical Infrastructure Strategies. But what this bushfire disaster has shown is the urgent need to focus on the impacts of climate change on electricity services.

I say once again because the risk of floods to electricity was dealt with comprehensively by the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry and extensive recommendations were made (I wonder whether they have been implemented). From the perspective of climate change, as long ago as 28 March 2012, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launched its report Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation noting that electricity transmission infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to extreme events, particularly wind and lightning, extreme rainfall events and floods, drought, and in some cases heatwaves. More recently in May 2019, the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre released a statement on the research priorities to protect Australia’s electricity networks from natural hazards. What is most concerning is that it finds a lack of recognition across government, private enterprise and the community of the vulnerabilities of electricity networks to natural hazard risks, and ‘a lack of incentives in place to specifically improve resilience and a lack of clarity on acceptable decision points for future investment to reduce risk exposure. This includes risk mitigation and maintenance of assets such as powerlines’. The Statement also recognises that unless regulatory frameworks explicitly mitigate the risks posed by natural hazards, including the future risks of climate change, it will be difficult to plan investment in the short term, for typically long-lived assets.

This is where Con Edison, the electricity company implicated in the disastrous Hurricane Sandy blackout, mentioned above, may assist. On 21 December 2019, Con Ed released its Climate Change Vulnerability Study, a seventy four page report which evaluates future climate change scenarios, its own vulnerability to these risks, and establishes an overarching framework to strengthen its resilience over time. Immediately after Hurricane Sandy Con Ed committed to spending US$1 billion in storm hardening and resilience measures. However, the three goals of this new Study are to: understand Con Ed’s exposure to climate change and extreme weather events; assess these impacts on its operations, planning and physical assets; and review a portfolio of operational, planning and design measures to improve its resilience. All of this is set out in great detail. Some of the strategies which Con Edison will adopt specifically for emergency scenarios include: supporting the creation of resilience hubs which coordinate resources before, during and after extreme events for continued access to energy services; the use of smart meters so that targeted load shedding can be implemented; staff training for streamlined emergency response; planning for supply chains that are resilient and efficient; coordinating extreme event preparedness plans with all external stakeholders; plan in the long term for low-probability high impact events; enhancing safety protocols for extreme heat workers; evaluating the number of workers needed to prepare for and recover from extreme climate events; and investing in energy storage, on-site generation and energy efficiency programs. During 2020, Con Ed will be developing a Climate Change Implementation Plan.

Here in Australia, AEMO did release its Summer 2019-2020 Readiness Plan in December 2019, including the risk of bushfires. However, it focuses predominantly on peak demand and resource availability across the network. Where AEMO says that it confirms ‘preventive maintenance on critical elements of the transmission network is performed ahead of the summer period to deliver a more resilient transmission system, including bushfire mitigation works and network upgrade plans’, these actions are not specified in any detail. The desktop Contingency Planning undertaken by AEMO, in October 2019, does not seem to have assisted in restoring power to affected communities timeously. All participants in the electricity sector should begin immediately to develop climate change vulnerability studies, long-term resilience strategies and implementation plans to withstand all future climate change risks. Governments and their agencies should respond with appropriate regulatory measures.

Two researchers at the University of Sydney, Associate Professor Gregor Verbic, a smart systems engineer, and I have been awarded funding from the Australian Research Council for the years 2019-2021 to develop A legal framework for resilient electricity infrastructure in Australia. Our international partners include Professor Daniel Farber at Berkeley Law and Professor Robert Verchick at the College of Law, Loyola University. They are both experts in Climate Disaster Law and the electricity sector. We are investigating the gaps in Australia’s approach to resilience in the electricity sector including in comparison to the United States and the European Union. Our research outcomes will include a list of Findings and Recommendations for government and stakeholders.

Rosemary Lyster is the Professor of Climate and Environmental Law at the University of Sydney Law School and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law. Rosemary’s special area of research expertise is Climate Justice and Disaster Law. She has published two books and numerous other publications in this area. Her books are Rosemary Lyster and Robert M. Verchick (eds.) Climate Disaster Law (Edward Elgar: 2018) and Rosemary Lyster Climate Justice and Disaster Law (Cambridge University Press: 2016). Rosemary has been selected by the Australian Financial Review as one of the 2018 ‘100 Women of Influence’ in the Public Policy category.In 2015, Rosemary was appointed by the Victorian government to a three person Independent Review Committee (IRC) to review the state’s Climate Change Act 2010 and make recommendations to place Victoria as a leader on climate change. The government accepted 32 of the IRC’s 33 Recommendations which were included in the new Climate Change Act 2017. In 2013, Rosemary was appointed a Herbert Smith Freehills Visiting Professor at Cambridge Law School and was a Visiting Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009 and in 2014. In other areas of Environmental Law, Rosemary specialises in Energy and Climate Law and Water Law.

Header image: by Matthew Henry via Unsplash.