Power outages: ‘They didn’t have the time to turn Huntly turbines on’, former Genesis boss says

A former Genesis Energy boss believes the team would have done everything they could to have helped the country out of darkness on Monday night – if they had enough notice.

Bob Weir was general manager at Genesis for eight years before leaving in 2013 and was one of approximately 20,000 Kiwis stuck at home in the dark for hours without a clue about what was going on.

While he, like Energy Minister Megan Woods, was perplexed at the lack of communication from power companies, he’s also concerned at how the country plans to keep Kiwis powered up in the future.

Woods was before her parliamentary colleagues yesterday explaining that the electricity market had “clear warnings” about Monday’s impending cold weather and why extra power capacity could have been used but was not.

Woods said the timeline of events – which included warnings to power companies from as early as Sunday – made three things clear.

“The electricity market had clear warnings about the potential for the shortage, secondly, there was inadequate communication with the public and, thirdly, there is enough generation in the system.”

Woods said peak demand in New Zealand usually sat around 6500MW – 6700MW.

However, last night it reached 7100MW.

She also took a swipe at Genesis for not turning on its third Rankine unit, which resulted in Genesis CEO Marc England saying his company was being scapegoated by Woods, and denied it was a commercial decision to have less supply – it was an operational decision. They lost $1million on Tuesday.

The coal-fired Rankine unit took several hours to turn on.

Weir today spoke out, explaining he no longer held any loyalty to the company, but believed the crew at Huntly “just simply didn’t have the notice to do it”.

“They just simply would not have had time to turn those units on,” he said, after having spent more than 3 hours in the dark in his Hamilton home on Monday night.

“They would have, there’s no question, commercially, morally they would have got them on if they could have because Genesis would have been losing money.

“While they might be making money generating they’ll be losing money on the retail side because prices wouldhave gone through the roof.”

The Rankine unit had four turbines. One had been permanently shut down during his tenure, but three others were still going.

Weir, who no longer had an association with the company, said if the turbines were off it could take, “even a week”, to turn back on. If one was sitting idle or warm, it could be turned on “in an hour, or two hours, no problems”.

However, if what he accepts is a commercial decision, to have the turbines sitting there warm, for 365 days of the year, a call had to be made at some point especially if no one was paying for it.

“And that is one of the quandaries we’ve always had with Huntly. It was built to be an insurance policy for New Zealand back in the 70s, in the good ole days.

“But when private companies took it over, like us when I was [at Genesis], it was costing $40m to $50m a year to run it. Who pays for that?”

That’s why the company drew up a $200m contract with Meridian years ago which would see Huntly called in for back-up if the rain stopped.

But whether Huntly should have been turned on or not would soon be a moot point with coal – along with oil and gas – to be phased out in the near future.

“The reality is that Huntly is 45 to 50 years old, it’s going to go. Even this debate about whether it should or shouldn’t have run is a moot point as it’s just not going to be there [soon].

“It’s so old and the investment hasn’t been made in it so it’s going to have to shut down sooner or later.”

The irony of coal being imported at an increasing rate and running the country wasn’t lost on him as the Government pushed towards a future with EV vehicles.

“That is the irony of it all.

“My view is that coal is going, it has to go, we owe it to the planet and our kids. I burned coal for 30 years and my kids remind me of that.”

However, the demand for coal was here and would remain until the demand stopped.

“It’s needed so they’ll keep burning it until the market says no. If they didn’t do that they’d be in more trouble politically.”

However, talks needed to begin about how the country was going to switch to renewable and how that was going to be paid for.

There were currently no drivers, or incentives, for businesses to invest in renewables because they wouldn’t currently get a return.

“The Government is hands off, so there is definitely something in that space that we have to get our head around.

“If oil and gas are going, which they will, coal will go, EVs are coming in, renewables will take up a bigger percentage.

“Can we achieve that and secure security of supply? To me, I don’t know.”

The outage affected a large number of residents in Hamilton, as well people in Wellington, Kāpiti Coast, Taupō, Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and Whangārei.

Hamilton’s WEL Networks refused to comment about why it didn’t warn its customers prior to the outage, instead referring the Herald to Transpower.

Vector said it used hot water control and battery installations to reduce the load on its network, as instructed by Transpower, and no customers were affected by outages.

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