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57% of Australians See Direct Effects of Bushfires as Power Grid Faces Peak Cooling Demand

power pylons sunrise gridcode 83/pixabay

With more than half the population directly affected by raging bushfires, a record-hot summer is producing frequent power outages on an electricity grid powered largely by the coal industry that Australia’s climate-denying government is still striving to defend.

The problems on the grid keep coming to the fore as a separate 1,000-person survey by the Australia Institute finds that 57% of the country’s population have seen direct effects of the fires over the last three months, while millions have suffered health effects, The Guardian reports [1]. The survey was extrapolated to represent about 5.1 million adults.

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“About a quarter of those surveyed (26%) reported illness or health effects as a result of smoke haze, while a third (33%) reported a change to routine—such as not jogging outside—as a result of the conditions,” The Guardian writes. “About 15% [clearly not including climate-denying Prime Minister Scott Morrison—Ed.] said they had been forced to change or cancel holiday or travel plans, while 12% said regular places of business or leisure were closed as a result of the disruption.”

The institute reported 9% of respondents saying they had missed work because of fires or smoke, a total of 1.8 million work days lost if each worker took only one day off. That would equate to a conservative estimate of A$1.3 billion in missed economic activity.

“In many areas, including in large cities, workplaces closed for many days and in some cases for a week or more,” the survey report stated. “If we assume an average of two days of lost production on average, the estimate of lost production doubles to $2.6 billion.”

The Institute also found that people who’d seen the direct effects of the bushfires were more likely to be “very concerned” about climate change, forests, wildlife, and the national government’s inaction in response to the crisis. “This research suggests that, as Australians face the escalating impacts of climate change in their own lives, calls for policies that reduce carbon emissions will continue to grow,” said Senior Researcher Tom Swann.

Grid operators were even more concerned about the stifling hot temperatures than they were about dozens of fires that devastated 10 million hectares, mostly in southeast Australia, and killed more than a billion animals, Greentech Media reports [3].

“What’s an issue more is that we’re experiencing extremely hot weather, which leads to an increase in demand for running air conditioners,” said Jill Cainey, general manager of networks at Energy Networks Australia, the country’s distribution system operator association. “If you have an intense extreme heat event where, let’s say, Melbourne and Sydney are impacted on the same day, then it’s harder to share the same resources to ensure that everyone has the electricity they need to run their air conditioning.”

It doesn’t help one bit that the country’s increasingly obsolete coal- and gas-fired power plants have been breaking down on average once every 3.2 days over the last two years, according to an IBISWorld report published earlier this week. “This is a significant concern,” RenewEconomy writes [4], since “Australia still gets more than 80% of its [electricity] from fossil fuels—and around 60% from coal-fired plants—and considering these plants aren’t getting any younger.”

“The major problem with Australia’s reliance on coal-fired power plants is the age and efficiency of the infrastructure,” said IBISWorld senior industry analyst James Caldwell. “Approximately half of Australia’s fleet of coal-fired power stations, generating over two-thirds of generating capacity, are over 30 years old. This trend presents a number of problems, primarily that these plants are no longer reliable.”

All of which makes it a brutal irony that Australia’s coal lobby still claims a lack of reliability as one of the reasons to slow down the shift to a renewable grid. “This small but noisy group, which includes numerous high-profile members of the federal Coalition government, claims that so-called ‘baseload’ generation from coal and gas—and failing those, nuclear—are the way forward for Australia’s grid,” RenewEconomy writes.

By contrast, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) reassured consumers last month “that the risk of power outages over the summer had been reduced by the surge in solar installations in the past 12 months,” continues reporter Sophie Vorrath. “AEMO chief Audrey Zibelman said the market operator was ‘pleased to see’ 3,700 megawatts (MW) of increased generation in the National Electricity Market, with rooftop and grid-scale solar generation representing approximately 90% of this increase.”

In a similar vein, Greentech says Australian electricity distributors are urging customers to take part in voluntary demand response programs that shave power demand during periods of peak use. Cainey said her household had participated in three requests so far this summer, by prechilling their home before turning off the air conditioning until evening.

The system works best in Victoria, the only Australian state with mandatory smart meters. Record customer participation in Victoria’s demand response program “cut the risk of network outages in Victoria and delivered more than half a million dollars to those taking part,” RenewEconomy writes [5], citing a report earlier this week from distribution company United Energy. “Its Summer Saver program, which had been activated three times over the course of December, had achieved a 97% participation rate—well above previous averages for the program of between 75 to 83%.”

But it remains to be seen how resilient the country’s grid will be as bushfire season plays out. Greentech notes that this year’s fires have not only been unusually intense, but began far earlier than normal: with the country already in crisis, the summer season only officially gets under way in January or February.