Winter storms and El Niño could put pressure on Australia’s power network

For the first time in 22 years, much of Australia had to deal with three consecutive La Niña events resulting in extremely wet conditions, record rainfall and widespread flooding. The country moves into winter bringing its own weather-related risks with the impact varying across the country. Storms, flash flooding and gale force winds typically cause major destruction to the southern half of the WA from May to October.

Last year, Western Power responded to more than 4,400 storm and wet weather incidents. The state-owned corporation is one of the three entities managing the electricity network for WA and invests about $1 billion each year to upgrade and maintain the network.

On the East Coast, La Niña weather events tend to begin in autumn and mature during winter. The storm that hit Victoria in the winter of 2021 knocked out power to 160,000 homes with the State Emergency Services receiving 6,500 calls for assistance.

After experiencing abnormal weather from 2020 to 2022, Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) predicts a warmer summer this year. The extended wet seasons over the past three years have caused abundant vegetation growth which will dry out and lead to a greater risk of grass fires and bushfires. BoM has already identified parts of NSW, Queensland and WA that will face above normal bushfire risk since the impending arrival of El Niño will result in higher than average temperatures.

Heatwaves also have an adverse impact on the operation of generators, solar panels, wind turbines and transformers. The Black Summer bushfires that swept through Australia’s eastern states in 2019-20 are a stark reminder of the devastation that such natural disasters can wreak.

Technology like that developed by Sense can help mitigate such risk when it is embedded into next generation smart meters. Sense’s advanced AI-based system, when rolled-out across Australia, enables energy providers to identify grid faults early on, preventing equipment failure and enabling efficient load management.

Quite often, the advice given to householders by many energy providers is to call their supplier if they experience a power related issue. However, Sense’s machine learning algorithms analyse the electricity in the home, identifying patterns in the electrical signal indicating electricity grid faults. This proactive monitoring can help to mitigate the risk of unhappy customers left in the dark.

Lessons from Storm Eunice

The immense potential of Sense was evident in February 2022 when 196 km/h winds caused by Storm Eunice lashed the UK causing deaths, structural damage, transport chaos and widespread power cuts.

One of the Sense-equipped households in the area experienced power fluctuations like other homes across the region. But they also experienced a low voltage drop that affected a dozen or so homes. Sense recorded erratic signals 30 minutes before a full outage caused by a tree that fell on to overhead cables.

If every home in that region had been fitted with a Sense-enabled next generation meter, it would have been possible to geolocate the problem and report it instantly to the electricity service providers, before any eventual loss of power.

In some situations, the local electricity distribution company could intervene to cut back the tree before the situation deteriorates. In case of bushfires, the energy distributor could get advance warning and shut down parts of the grid in the path of the blaze. Also, if electricity disturbances are detected, Sense users could be proactively alerted directly and advised immediately to turn off sensitive appliances and electronics.

Energy suppliers and grid operators can also limit consumption during those times when there are constraints on power. “Sense-enabled smart meters enable grid managers to better manage variations in demand when faced with weather-related events and help avoid blackouts and brownouts,” says Michael Jary, Managing Director APAC and EMEA, Sense. By analysing data on weather patterns, energy consumption and other factors, utilities can forecast energy demand and supply and balance the load on the grid. This can help prevent overloading the grid during peak periods and reduce the risk of outages.

Regulators are moving to implement guaranteed energy supply service levels with suppliers facing punitive measures if these are not met. Victoria’s Essential Services Commission now administers a general payment scheme to recognise customers affected by unplanned power outages.

Customers who experience many or long unplanned power outages during a year may be entitled to a payment which is usually applied automatically as a credit to their energy bill. Even momentary outages of less than a minute each incur a penalty if their number exceeds a set yearly limit. With Sense, energy providers now have access to technologies that help minimise power disruptions and ensure more reliable supply for customers.

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