You'd think they'd never seen street lights before. This week, Wellington residents who'd spent days without power danced in their streets with joy when the lights finally came back on.
It was the kind of delight that moved citizens of the capital to write terrible poetry celebrating the wonder of electricity, when it first appeared in the 19th century.
But this is 2013 – not 1889. It seems like an absurd situation for a developed nation's capital city to find itself in. Hundreds of people cut off for days, shivering in the cold and waiting for the magic switch to come back on.
Today, about 200 Wellingtonians will still awake to no power.
So how is it, that Wellington – a city renowned for being buffeted by gales – could have power knocked out for more than a week, simply because of a storm?
In answer, Wellington Electricity chief executive Greg Skelton says the blackout can be understood only by looking at the network as a tree. It's like a big macrocarpa blown over in the storm, shattered branches everywhere.
The main electricity lines from the national grid are its trunk. The lines from substation to substation are the branches. And the connections to houses and semi-rural streets are its twigs. There is a lot of broken wood littering the city's backyard right now.
The first response to the damage was focused on the trunk. Fix those lines and you get the lights back on for thousands.
But the branches and twigs are hardest to repair, and sometimes fixing each twig restores power to just one home at a time.
Skelton acknowledges it's taking longer than anyone would like – but he also says compensation for those worst affected is unlikely, and even suggests people might want to look at buying generators, rather than relying on the infrastructure to get them through.
Nobody expects the city to come through a storm like last week's unscathed, and nobody expects the power to remain undisturbed in those conditions.
Wellington's regional emergency management group co-ordinator, Bruce Pepperell, says it's important to put it in context. Big storms will knock out power just as easily in First World countries as they do in the Third World – look at New York last year.
"Storms and disasters hit you hard, if you're First or Third World. Look at the storm that hit New York in 2012.
"There were big power outages there and it was quite some time before people got online."
Mayor Celia Wade-Brown also points to the severity of the storm, saying it wasn't the sort of battering that occurs every couple of years – but more like every couple of decades.
The city faces a massive cleanup job, with thousands of fallen trees to clear. "You've got huge trees to cull before you can get access to the property, let alone add on the power."
However, she will be asking for a debrief about the process once everyone is back online, she says.
Certainly the statistics show that the storm was a whopper – the worst since the Wahine, with the biggest gusts even topping the Wahine storm's records by 2kmh.
After the storm, Wellington Electricity explained that it can handle winds between 100 and 120kmh, but when they start getting higher, the network begins to struggle.
While single gusts were bad, in this storm the maximum 10-minute average gale-force winds at Wellington Airport were 101kmh, Niwa says. They were 144kmh during the Wahine storm.
The MetService says that gusts higher than 140kmh are rare – but they do happen. In the past 42 years, Kelburn has recorded gusts higher than 140kmh 32 times.
So, yes, it was a big storm, but we are entitled to ask why it took – and is taking – so long to restore power to so many.
Skelton concedes the storm has exposed problems with how the lines company deals with extreme events. However, he is proud of his staff's response to the conditions that Thursday night threw at them.
Linesmen worked through 200kmh winds and driving rain to restore power to as much of the city as they could. With 30,000 homes cut off at the peak, Skelton says it was a good result to get 29,000 back on supply within two days.
He's not alone in his praise.
"The electricity workers have been working very hard, and to get from 30,000 out to under 1000, they've done a lot of work," Wade-Brown says.
Retailers – the people we actually buy the power from – don't control what Wellington Electricity does.
Genesis Energy thought the lines company had done well.
"Considering they had 30,000 without power and hundreds, if not thousands, of issues to deal with ... [It was] significant compared to any storm damage in New Zealand in recent years, we think they've done pretty well," public relations manager Richard Gordon says.
Skelton also acknowledges the hardships faced by those who have not been reconnected quickly. But compensation appears to be off the table. If it was paid, he says, the company would have to charge much higher lines fees to cover the costs.
And the cost of making the network able to stand up to the kind of battering it sustained last Thursday would mean the same thing.
In fact, he says it might be cheaper if people bought generators for emergencies.
His company maintains 4592 kilometres of power lines, connecting 161,140 homes and businesses. About 61 per cent of the network is underground.
On average, customers can expect a power cut of just over an hour once every two years. However, that statistic does not include extreme events such as those of last week.
When one like that hits, all bets are off. "We don't get events of this size often," he says.
"It's a once-every-two-or-three-decades event ... it hit with a huge amount of force."
The difficulty with reconnecting individual homes is that a whole nest of rules and regulations govern what linesmen can and cannot do.
"Once it goes on to private property, the service line is the responsibility of the customer," he says.
"So the line crew can connect it to the entry point, but can't go further... we were finding a lot of entry points had been pulled away, so the internal wiring needs to be checked, which means we have to get electrical contractors in... they can't get access to the property without the customer."
The homeowner also has to be there for the power to be put back on – otherwise, Skelton says, how do the linesmen know the appliances are off and aren't going to cause more trouble?
The problem, of course, is that after extensive storm damage, lots of people aren't at home.
Skelton says the cautious approach works when it is business as usual, but the sheer volume of problems caught the system on the hop. Communication problems did not help.
Many people were given the runaround by power retailers and Wellington Electricity, leaving them unsure where to go for help and for updates.
Gordon of Genesis Energy explains that it did not own any of the assets brought down by the storm.
"Our role [in a crisis] is to be a courier of information between customers and the lines company. We are not the owners [of the lines]."
Skelton says the systems of both the retailers and the lines company could not cope with the influx of calls from confused customers.
Normally – at least in the context of New Zealand's Byzantine electricity market – customers should report faults to their retailers. These are logged on a database and relayed to contractors by Wellington Electricity.
However, the computer system backed up badly on Thursday and Friday, and some calls simply were not logged as they should have been.
"Our IT systems tried to do about eight months of fault and repair work in two days, and they just haven't cut the mustard," Skelton says.
The lines company eventually added a new layer to its call centre to deal with storm faults, bypassing the retailers. It is not something he wants to make permanent.
But he would like to see the bottleneck fixed and the company get better at communicating with customers.
Another problem will be dealing with unseen damage down the track.
"There are a whole lot of things out there we don't know about yet."
He expects fault numbers to rise in the months to come. "It will probably take a couple of years' work to recover fully."
FAMILY LEFT IN THE DARK AGAIN
For Helen Down, it was deja vu in the dark. family had torches strategically located around their rural Upper Hutt house for easy access, because they'd been in this powerless situation before.
They were among about 420 people who lost power during the snow storm that blanketed the capital in August 2011. Then, it was out for about two days. So when the big storm knocked it out for three days last week, the family were prepared, she says.
Once again, they huddled around their fire and played cards and mahjong to entertain themselves, but, once again, there was a lack of communication about what was going on.
While her power company, Contact Energy, has improved its customer service skills – for example, no-one asked whether she had tried flicking the light switch as they did in 2011 – it was still impossible to find out what was going on.
"My sister in Auckland knew more about it than I did," she says.
Being told to go to websites for updates doesn't work when you don't have any electricity to power your computer, let alone charge your smartphone.
"You don't realise how much you need [power] now to communicate and how disconnected you can feel."
However, she has been heartened by having linesmen phoning her and knocking on her door to check she has the power back on. "They were being really proactive in checking that we have power back on."
While she appreciates the hard work of the lines crews and the extremity of last week's storm, she feels more resilience could be built into the system. "You'd like to think that our system would be more robust, but the reality is that we're really reliant on power.
"Given the situation they were operating in, I think they did well."
Their rural property relies on a single feed from Porirua, so Mrs Down questions why a backup feed from Upper Hutt isn't in place.
While they were able to take their latest power outage on the chin, it could have been a different story if it had been earlier in the week.
Down runs her marketing firm from home and, while she was able to shut for one day on Friday, any longer would have caused problems. They are now considering buying a generator.
A HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
Everyone accepts the storm was severe, the worst since the Wahine in 1968. So outages and damage are to be expected.
But questions have previously been raised about the network's reliability during normal business, too.
The Commerce Commission is investigating why Wellington Electricity failed to meet the price and quality of service standards over the past two years.
It is not the first time the company has fallen short of those targets, since it was bought by Hong Kong company Cheung Kong Infrastructure in 2009.
Network reliability has two measures. abstruse acronyms. The System Average Interruption Duration Index calculates the average time a customer would spend cut off each year. Its sister measure, the System Average Interruption Frequency Index, calculates how often power cuts hit a network.
In 2009-10, Wellington Electricity missed the targets set by the commission. The company met them in 2010-11, but breached again in 2011-12. Wellington Electricity blamed the poor performance on "unusual weather-related events including snow and strong winds".
The 2012-13 year has not been any better and, as a result, the commission has put the company under closer scrutiny.
Commerce Commission general manager of regulation John Hamill says it could impose financial penalties, depending on its findings.
Wellington Electricity chief executive Greg Skelton insists the Hong Kong ownership of the network does not affect its priorities.
"In this response it wouldn't matter who the owners were," he says.
"The new owners have put more money into the network than [previous owner Vector] ever did."
He says the performance of the network is excellent in comparison to others in New Zealand. He blames the 2011 snowstorm and a 2012 wind storm, which damaged the Trentham supply station, as the main reason why the targets were not met.
"Wellington Electricity still remains the most reliable network in the country."
STORM REINFORCES NEED FOR DISASTER PLANS
If you don't already have emergency supplies set aside, Bruce Pepperell hopes you've had a wake-up call.
"If that hasn't been reinforced in the past couple of days then I'm not sure what will," the regional emergency management group -ordinator says.
The whole storm event has highlighted the importance of being prepared for natural disasters – because it isn't just earthquakes that knock out electricity.
"Wellington people are the most prepared of anyone in the country, but having said that, a lot of people found their preparation lacking."
A Ministry of Civil Defence survey found a quarter of Wellington residents are fully prepared for a disaster – well above the national average of 16 per cent. Similarly 65 per cent of people have prepared for a disaster in the past year compared with 55 per cent nationally.
The storm has also highlighted the importance of having a plan – and a plan B, he says.
Many people who thought they'd be OK if they lost water because of special pump systems hadn't thought about the need for power.
Having a backup plan for your backup plan can help get you through, he says, because plan A might not always work.
But the storm has also shown the resilience of Wellingtonians, with people banding together, helping out their neighbours just generally getting in to the cleanup, he says.
"One of the real success stories has been people helping other people."
Civil Defence services have had to relocate only a "handful" of people, because most were able to turn to friends, family and neighbours for help.
DAY BY DAY - THE ROAD TO RECONNECTION
Thursday, June 20
The worst storm since the Wahine slammed into the capital overnight. At its peak, 30,000 customers were without power.
Friday, June 21
2000 people faced a second powerless night. Wellington Electricity chief executive Greg Skelton said it was the inevitable result of a once-in-a-generation storm.
Saturday, June 22
1200 houses were still in the dark.
Sunday, June 23
600 people headed into a fourth night without power. Wellington Electricity said progress had been made in Thorndon, Lyall Bay, Newlands, Miramar, Seatoun the surrounding suburbs, but power could be out to some residents in rural areas for up to a week.
Monday, June 24
The number of houses without power remained about 600. Mr Skelton warned progress would now be slow.
Tuesday, June 25
470 homes still waiting to get back on the grid.
Wellington Electricity said many repair jobs in affected areas were extensive, and required technical work that would repair faults for only small numbers of customers at a time.
Wednesday, June 26
There were 400 homes still without power – and people faced warnings they might have to wait till Saturday.
Thursday, June 27
380 houses waiting for power to be reconnected.
Friday, June 28
200 hundred houses still waiting to be reconnected.
POWERING WELLINGTON - OUR HISTORY WITH ELECTRICITY
1879: Lambton Quay jewellers Kohn & Co use electric lights to advertise its shop.
1883: Electric lights installed at Parliament.
1889: Wellington becomes the first city in the southern hemisphere to install electric street lights, with 480 lamps powered from Featherston St. William Skey, a well-known mining geologist but terrible poet, eulogised the innovation:
And where but yesterday night, the gas-lights flare
To strive for man against the murky air,
To night from lofty shapes in trappings gay,
The Empire City's bathed in mellow day;
To night a thousand suns resplendent shine,
From Lambton's curve to Newtown's far confine."
1904: Power station built on Jervois Quay, later joined by another on Evans Bay.
1924: Power station built at Mangahao in the Tararua Range – 100km of lines take power into Wellington. The council builds substations around the city to distribute. The national grid had started to develop.
1968: Wahine storm worst to hit Wellington in 20th century. Power lines down and power cuts across the city, but people more concerned about the tragedy in the harbour.
1987: Electricity Corporation set up, taking over from the New Zealand Electricity Department.
1990: Wellington City Council Municipal Electricity Department and the Hutt Valley Electric Power Board merge assets into Capital Power. In December, strong winds cause power cuts for 500 houses in the Hutt Valley.
1992: City council sells 49 per cent of Capital Power to Canadian company Trans Alta for $120 million.
1996: Rest of Capital Power sold to Trans Alta for $90m. Electricity Corporation broken up into several different suppliers.
2000: Trans Alta sells to United States-based United Networks for $560m.
2004: United Networks sells to New Zealand company Vector for $800m.
2008: Vector sells to Hong Kong company Cheung Kong Infrastructure, joint owner of Wellington Electricity, for $785m.
2011: In July, 3000 people are cut off for more than an hour when the system overloads. Later that month, a power cable in the CBD fails for more than 20 minutes, wiping out lunchtime trade. August sees snow cut power to thousands of Tawa, Johnsonville and Porirua residents. In December, a sudden failure at Huntly power station causes a blackout for 50,000 Wellington customers for more than an hour.
SURVIVAL KIT: WHAT YOU NEED
Torch with spare batteries or a self-charging torch.
Radio with spare batteries.
Wind and waterproof clothing, sun hats and strong outdoor shoes.
First-aid kit and essential medicines.
Blankets or sleeping bags.
Toilet paper and large rubbish bags for your emergency toilet.
Face and dust masks.
Food and water for at least three days: Non-perishable food (canned or dried food); food, formula and drinks for babies and small children; water for drinking – at least 3 litres per person, per day; water for washing and cooking; a primus or gas barbecue to cook on; can opener.
Don't just stock it and forget about it. Remember:
Check and replace food and water every year. Consider stocking a two-week supply of food and water for longer emergencies like a pandemic.
Check batteries every three months. Battery-powered lighting is the safest and easiest – as candles can tip over in earthquake aftershocks or wind. Do not use kerosene lamps, which require ventilation and are not designed for indoor use.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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