Research to examine aftermath of earthquake-caused blackout

The West Coast's electrical grid consists mostly of overhead power lines.

The West Coast's electrical grid consists mostly of overhead power lines.

New research will examine how the West Coast would cope with a widespread blackout in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake on the Alpine Fault.

It is part of a multi-disciplinary effort to prepare for natural disasters, starting with a likely earthquake on the active fault line within the next century.

Associate Professor Nirmal Nair,​ of the University of Auckland, has received about $230,000 for the two-year project, which will plan a response to a hypothetical six to eight week blackout on the West Coast.

A large earthquake occurs on the fault every 300 years. The last such earthquake was 300 years ago.

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The research, in collaboration with Westpower, would involve planning a microgrid which could operate independently from the main power source.

Quickly restoring electricity would be an important step following an earthquake, particularly for communications equipment.

If the powerlines entering the region from the east were damaged, it was likely many would lose power, Nair said.

The scenario aligns with the AF8 project, which is planning a response to a hypothetical magnitude-8 earthquake.

Nair's research uses a scenario positing it would take up to eight weeks for electricity to be reconnected, but the actual time was unknown.

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The study would take into account recent disasters, such as the Kaikoura and Christchurch earthquakes, as well as international events such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

"We're really looking at the next big one, and the next big one, statistically, is the Alpine Fault," he said.

"If an Alpine Fault earthquake does occur, and the electricity lifeline is supposed to be an important one which other lifelines depend upon, how would it perform?"

One strategy would be to look at similar examples in the past.

A local example would be the Auckland power crisis in 1998, which left the central city in the dark for five weeks, Nair said.

It led thousands of people to find accommodation elsewhere and largely emptied out the central city for more than a month.

While electricity networks were generally reliable, there had been little research about how they held up in the face of a natural disaster, Nair said

"In terms of resilience, people don't really measure that – it's usually mentioned in days to get back in service. So we're trying to quantify that kind of a tolerance level and come up with some new resilience metrics."

He hoped the result would be a blueprint of sorts for future natural disasters, both locally and internationally. He would like to study the response in Wellington next.

"It's a scenario based analysis at this stage, so it's a lot of what ifs. But at least it will inform us better for when a big thing does happen and we have kind of a road map from the restoration side aspect," he said.

"We'll start with this as kind of a benchmark model for how we operate . . . It will provide some basis to do fast, actionable items if the big one happens on the West Coast."

​The resilience challenge is one of 11 categories within the National Science Challenge, in which Government funds are allocated to various research projects.

 - Stuff


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