Bush fires that have razed more than 10 million hectares and killed more than a billion animals are also threatening Australia’s grid, but they're not what Australian network operators fear most.

“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, Australia’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.”

With the country sweltering under conditions likely to beat even last year’s highest-ever mean and maximum annual temperatures, grid chiefs are fearing a repeat of the challenges seen in the last two years on Australia Day, January 26.

In 2018, more than 94,000 customers lost power in Victoria. Last year, extreme heat across Victoria and South Australia forced the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) to take 266 megawatts of load off the grid on Jan. 24 and another 271.6 megawatts on Jan. 25, according to a report for the National Electricity Market.

The need for load shedding, which was exacerbated by a major coal-fired power station outage, saw Alcoa Portland’s aluminum smelter in Victoria going without power for two and a half hours on the first day and a loss of power affecting 200,000 customers the next.

It only came into play after AEMO had used up Reliability and Emergency Reserve Trader (RERT) scheme reserves worth AUD $10,000 (around USD $6,900) per megawatt-hour.

Australia's push for demand response

In reaction to these events, distribution system operators have been pushing Australians to take part in voluntary demand response programs, paying customers to cut their energy use when the grid gets stressed.

Cainey said her household had already taken part in three demand response requests this summer. “Basically, we prechilled the house and then [did] not operate the air conditioner through the peak in the evening."

Demand response is easier for distribution network service providers in Victoria, which is the only Australian state where smart meters are mandatory.

Whether demand response is needed at all this coming Australia Day will largely depend on the heat. “Every degree over about 32 [equivalent to 90 degrees Fahrenheit] puts stress on the electricity system,” said Cainey.

Naturally, having to deal with massive bush fires does not help matters. Ben Cerini, principal consultant for the consultancy Cornwall Insight Australia, said there had already been three major grid incidents that could be directly traced to fires this summer.

On Dec. 30, a line outage left Victoria short of power and sent energy prices in the state up to AUD $14,700 (USD $10,150) per megawatt-hour, forcing AEMO to call upon the RERT market.

Then on Jan. 4, gusts of up to nearly 90 mph drove flames through the Snowy Mountains, knocking out two substations and collapsing the high-voltage interconnector linking Victoria with New South Wales.

As in Victoria previously, NSW power prices hit AUD $14,700 and RERT assets came into play. The blaze also caused serious damage to one of the biggest renewable energy projects under development in Australia, Snowy Hydro 2.0, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Finally, on Jan. 7, bush fire debris affected the interconnector joining Queensland and NSW.

Bush fire season still coming up

Despite these setbacks, the consensus is that Australia’s electricity networks are coping well given the level of environmental destruction caused by bush fires this summer.

Cainey said network operators are well versed in vegetation management aimed at reducing fire hazards.

And according to Cerini, "AEMO has done quite a good job of responding to the changing conditions in the market this summer and has on multiple times, where there were dangers to the network, invoked constraints on interconnection between regions.”

It remains to be seen whether the measures taken so far will continue to work effectively when Australia’s bush fire season really gets underway, traditionally around late January or February.

This summer’s devastation has already sparked intense debate over the extent to which manmade climate change could be affecting Australia’s susceptibility to bush fires.

Speaking on GTM’s Energy Gang podcast this month, U.S.-based Jigar Shah, co-founder and president of Generate Capital, said: “I do think the climate has an impact around how much devastation [is caused] and how hard it is to keep these fires under control.”

If that’s so, Australia’s network operators won’t just have their work cut out for them in dealing with this year’s bush fire season, but also the next one and all those after.