Blackouts warrant explanations

In the rush to position ourselves as a global leader in renewable energy generation have we overlooked one of the most basic responsibilities of Government: keeping the lights on?

We don’t know. But we deserve to as questions continue to mount about a nationwide blackout on Monday and Samoa now facing the possibility of electricity rations.

Our current goal of transition to 100 per cent renewable sources by 2025 has won us plaudits worldover. It puts us even 15 years ahead of pioneers in the developed world such as England which has set itself a much more modest target. And that, no doubt, adds weight to our arguments with recalcitrant countries such as Australia when we advocate for serious action in reducing carbon emissions. 

But that the country can still be potentially hamstrung by blackouts despite hundreds of millions of tala in electricity investments has to raise questions about whether we are overlooking the basic needs of our population.  

A severe lightning storm was blamed for Monday’s blackout which knocked out two generators at our main power plant. 

The General Manager for the Electric Power Corporation (E.P.C.), Tologatā Tile Tuimalealiifano, said we are now under a “state of emergency” when it comes to electricity coverage. 

Without enough power for the nation, Tologatā said that we could face electricity rationing.

How could this have come to pass?

Our diesel power plant at Fiaga was part of a US$100 million project to expand Samoa's power capacity. It includes sophisticated anti-surge protection on earth. Not only are the surge protections the world’s most sophisticated, the plant even sprays inert gases over vulnerable components during times of stress to prevent sparks and overload. 

It is possible that lightning overloaded these protections and disabled two generators. But it would also be unusual. 

Are the safety measures at Fiaga working as intended? We call on the E.P.C. to review Monday’s meltdown and make their findings public as cyclone season poses ongoing threats. 

Other aspects of our electricity predicament do not add up. 

Tologatā exposed a significant contradiction at the heart of our energy policy when explaining Monday’s blackout. 

Samoa’s electricity network, Tologatā, seemed to imply, was entirely dependent on switching between hydropower and diesel. 

“If we still have enough rain [...] we may not have any power outage; it will be enough for us to provide the whole country with electricity,” he said. 

“But if we don’t have enough rain with only two [generators] running [...] there is a possibility that we may have to cut off some parts of the country.”

It does not take a professor of logic to identify the self-defeating reasoning here. 

Thunder and lightning can evidently damage our main source of power.

But the constant companion of those two weather phenomena - rain - is our only backup?

It would seem that two planks of our national electricity strategy work at cross-purposes but, of course, the picture is more complex than this. 

In 2018 the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, announced the launch of a multimillion dollar project which would mean that “solar systems of 13 [megawatts are] now connected to the grid”.

Questions need to be asked about why our solar panels and the Tesla batteries that connect to them cannot be used in case of shortfalls. 

Analysis published in the Samoa Observer earlier this month (Renewables goal $600 million away: analysis) suggested we were likely to just fall short of our goal of transitioning entirely to renewable sources, even with massive investments. 

But the failure of our most basic household utility can cost us much more than that. 

It is not just consumers and households who suffer in the event of blackouts. 

Businesses bear significant costs. And a country where basic utilities cannot be relied upon is unlikely to attract foreign investment. 

A wholesale switch to renewables is a commendable goal. 

But until the public receives a complete accounting for how and why our current grid continues to fail it should be a second-order priority. 

We hope that simple solutions are the answer.

Despite investigating in sophisticated technology we continue to overlook some elementary aspects of energy infrastructure. 

The installation of large lightning protectors around our electricity assets might be one obvious example of a way to protect our power supply. 

Other issues, such as failure to adequately clear trees near power lines and low-hanging power lines vulnerable to damage are evergreen issues

Aspirations to lead the world are noble indeed. But they do not mean much when you come home to a dark house. 

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