Having just 14 per cent battery left on your smartphone can be quite stressful, right? Now imagine you smartphone is the state of Tasmania.
That's pretty much the situation right now on the Apple Isle, which has just 14 per cent capacity in its hydro electric dams and its main supply cable wiped out by a mystery fault.
Tasmanians haven't had any brownouts yet, but the state is now relying on 150 diesel generators and a decommissioned power plant to keep electricity supplies up until the winter rains arrive to replenish water levels. That's right, in 2016 an entire Australian state is relying on emergency generators.
And on Tuesday came news that the Basslink undersea cable – which usually supplies half the state's electricity – won't be fixed until at least June. A spokeswoman for Hydro Tasmania said it was still "assessing the implications" of this news, but just a week ago it was denying reports its own staff were preparing for blackouts.
Meanwhile, the state government has set up an energy security sub-committee that has been meeting weekly since January. Energy minister Matthew Groom last week called for calm, saying "it's natural for people to become increasingly anxious as the weeks go on, and dam levels go down ... But people can have confidence that we have a plan in place to ensure our energy needs continue to be met".
It all started in May 2015 with the lowest rainfalls in a century. Tasmania usually gets about 60 per cent of its electricity from hydro power and the rest from Victoria's brown coal stations, imported through the seven-year old Basslink. So it was a real problem when Basslink broke on the afternoon of December 20, 2015. It has taken more than three months to pinpoint the fault to a small muddy tear 100 kilometres along the 290 kilometres of cable.
"In simple terms, water got in and damaged the cable – this now needs to be removed," Singaporean-owned Basslink said in statement on Tuesday, confirming the repairs would not be completed until "mid-June".
But Tasmania needs about 1100 megawatts of energy every day, rising up to 1800 MW during winter peak periods, according to a Hydro Tasmania spokeswoman. Basslink was providing up to 478 MW, and when it failed, Tasmania had to ramp up hydro production. Unfortunately, the dams and lakes were at extremely low capacity because Tasmania has been making excess electricity to take advantage of the old carbon price rules, as reported by Fairfax Media recently.
So Hydro Tasmania decided to unlock the doors of the old gas-fired Tamar Valley Power Station, and flipped open a copy of the Yellow Pages to find some diesel generators. The Tamar Valley could soon be producing about 386 MW and diesel generators up to 200 MW.
But it has cost $42 million to set up the generators, sourced from "throughout the Asia Pacific region", plus about $20 million each month to operate. They even had to get an urgent exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency to burn diesel.
Meanwhile, some companies have volunteered to reduce their energy needs, given that five factories consume about 60 per cent of the state's electricity.
The government plans to keep the diesel generators going until the winter rains arrive and Hydro Tasmania expects to absorb all the additional costs.
"If the current dry conditions continue we will utilise more of the temporary generation. If the rains start to return we will utilise less," Mr Groom said in early March.
Manager of climate prediction services at the Bureau of Meteorology, Andrew Watkins, said Tasmania would see average rainfalls this year albeit "slightly on the wet side". The bureau was currently expecting rains to arrive around May.