What if an entire state in one of the world's wealthiest countries was to run out of electricity?
It's a question Tasmanians have been pondering – initially with humour, but increasingly with concern – since late last year.
On December 20, Basslink – the $800 million, 290-kilometre submarine cable connecting Tasmania with Victoria and in recent times provided up to 40 per cent of its electricity – stopped working. Nobody knows why.
The failure came just as the island was more reliant on Basslink than ever. Its power plants are overwhelmingly hydro-electric, and 2015 was its driest spring on record. The water flowing into dams was less than half the amount in any year for at least three decades.
By December, storages were at just 24.6 per cent. No worries, the authorities said; Basslink said the cable would be fixed by February, then March. But three months on, that re-connection date has vanished from the schedule. The damage to the cable is internal and proving hard to locate.
Crisis without parallel
There is no new estimate of when it will be repaired. Meanwhile, Tasmania's damstorages continue to dwindle, down to 16.1 per cent.
"This is very unusual. I don't think there has been a crisis like it," says Hugh Saddler, principal energy consultant with Pitt & Sherry. "The last time I can recall something like this was in NSW in 1983, when there was a problem with the Liddell [black coal] power station, but that was resolved fairly quickly. This is proving quite different."
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and the Tasmanian Liberal government and state-owned power generator Hydro Tasmania have chased solutions to keep the lights on, some more creative than others.
At the obvious end: mothballed gas turbines in the Tamar Valley – shut down since mid-2014 after the soaring price of gas in export markets made them unviable, and partially put up for sale – are back operating at a capacity of nearly 300 megawatts.
As a stopgap, the state is also bringing in more than 20 portable diesel generators, at a cost of $44 million to set up and an estimated $20 million a month to run.
Industry go slow
While moving to shore up supply, the government has also tackled demand. Just five industrial sites consume about 60 per cent of the state's electricity. Three – Rio Tinto's Bell Bay Aluminium, manganese alloy plant TEMCO and paper manufacturer Norske Skog – have agreed to cut use.
Less conventionally, it was announced this week the state would ramp up a cloud-seeding campaign – a controversial rain-milking technique that involves dropping silver iodide particles from a plane. This technique will kick into action a month earlier than usual at a cost of $100,000. No estimate was available of how much extra rain this might produce.
From even further left field, it was revealed Hydro Tasmania had considered draining once pristine Lake Pedder – flooded in 1972 in the face of a concerted environmental campaign, and still at near capacity while other storage sites hit record lows – to a level currently forbidden under state law.
This suggestion won quick backing from the Greens and conservation groups, which have campaigned for the lake to be restored to its natural state.
Energy security promised but uncertain
"The plan is designed to maintain Tasmania's energy security without Basslink in operation, even with continued low rainfall and another unprecedented adverse event occurring," he said.
Political critics said the state government's approach assumed a wet winter and that the cable would be fixed before spring, and that it had ignored opportunities to develop renewable energy projects.
Melbourne Energy Institute director Professor Mike Sandiford does not criticise the government's response, but says there is no guarantee winter will provide a fix.
"The reservoirs will almost certainly get down to 13 per cent, and when the rain comes the land will be very dry, so there will be little run off initially. There will need to be really good rains to recover that storage," he says.
He says Tasmania has missed opportunities to build more wind farms, which are a good back-up for hydro generation. Northern Tasmania has a better wind resource than South Australia and Victoria, which have invested more heavily.
Carbon cash-in hurts
That the steps the government has taken are required is a result not only of the short-term crisis but a decision taken by Hydro Tasmania nearly four years ago, when the carbon price was in force.
The scheme introduced under then prime minister Julia Gillard increased the cost of energy from burning fossil fuels, but not emissions-free hydro power. Analysts say that faced with a growing (and ultimately vindicated) expectation that the scheme may not survive under an Abbott government, Hydro Tasmania made a calculated decision to increase output – and run down water storages – to sell as much electricity as possible at the higher rate.
As Saddler puts it: "They could bid in [to the national market] whenever they wanted just under the cost of fossil fuels, and it would be the cheapest electricity available. It was very profitable."
Saddler is not critical of this decision. Modelling was undertaken to ensure dams would remain at an operational level despite the increased generation. But the models used could not factor in the Basslink outage.
"I don't think this situation reflects badly on Hydro," Saddler says, "though you could say they didn't properly take into account the impact of climate change."