27 Apr

Last one out, turn the lights off please!
by Tracey Nelson
27 Apr 2009

With the latest power outage at North Harbour Stadium this weekend, is New Zealand on the brink of being an international joke with just over two years left to iron out all potential disasters before we host the Rugby World Cup – and is that embarrassment most likely to be dished up by our largest city?

Rugby New Zealand 2011 chief executive Martin Snedden has assured us that we will not be embarrassed by power cuts to stadiums hosting Rugby World Cup games in 2011 after a power outtage at North Harbour Stadium saw a 50 minute delay to the Blues v Reds game just minutes after kick off on Saturday night. He claims that they had identified this very problem six months ago and asked stadiums to ensure they had contingency plans should the lights go out.

There are contractual obligations for venues hosting any matches from the quarter-finals onwards to have a back-up power supply that was not dependent on the national grid. Those stadiums in question are Eden Park in Auckland, Westpac Stadium in Wellington and AMI Stadium in Christchurch. While there is no doubt that these three bigger centres either do or will have generators on hand to cover any potential power outtage, the fact remains that there are ten other venues hosting games that would seem not to have any obligations for contingency plans in the event of power failure.

The potential for disaster looms large, with Brendon O’Connor (CEO of North Harbour Stadium) suggesting there was no reason after Saturday night’s disaster to worry about the stadium’s ability to host three RWC pool games. North Harbour Stadium have no plans for a back-up generator, instead they are going to have Vector engineers on site to deal with any problems as they arise.

Lovely sentiments, but given the outtage on Saturday night was caused by a falling tree branch taking out a high-voltage line, I’m not quite sure what he expects the Vector engineers to be able to do in such circumstances. Once the high voltage floodlights lose power, they rapidly lose their luminescence and it takes several minutes from the time they are switched back on to warm up and reach a lighting level suitable to resume play. Even assuming the engineers were poised to go they would first have to work out where the outtage had occurred and then re-route the power, something unlikely to happen in less than 10 minutes.

Ten minutes or more added to the duration of a RWC pool match could then have a flow-on effect, much in the way things happened on Saturday night. The second game of the evening was due to kick-off at 7.30pm but with the 50 minute delay in the first game that meant that the two games overlapped for 20 minutes – an immediate problem when you are supposedly broadcasting every game of a tournament live. Can you imagine the annoyance of international host broadcasters and international fans if there are delays that cause games to overlap or, worse yet, not get played due to a major power outtage? Not to mention the ridicule we as New Zealanders would have to endure.

And what are the chances of a long delay occurring? A report prepared for state-owned power company Transpower by expert consultants from the US and Britain last year has warned that New Zealand’s power supply system needs urgent upgrading and the current network maintenance is not enough. The report also had a heavy warning that many assets are rapidly approaching the end of life and need replacing, with 40% of Transpower’s transformers being between 40 and 70 years old.

Still have doubts that the power would go down? Here’s a few examples from Auckland in just the past five months:

  • 1st Dec 2008: Telecom’s broadband network knocked out nationally for eight hours from 9pm because of a power fault at a central Auckland exchange.
  • 15 Jan 2009: 580 customers in Auckland CBD without power between 7.15 and 8.30pm after an outage in a substation in Victoria St.
  • 3rd Feb 2009: 74,000 homes and businesses hit by a two hour major power outage at 1pm, stretching from Mt Wellington to Newmarket after a transformer fault at a Penrose substation.
  • 19th Feb 2009: 1800 customers in Newmarket and parts of Parnell lose power between 12.30-2.30pm
  • 25 April 2009: North Harbour Stadium and 750 homes on the North Shore without power for 50 minutes when a branch takes out a high-voltage power line.

But it’s not just the power supply either, is it. The previous weekend almost 3000 fans missed out on the Blues v Highlanders game at Eden Park because the trains weren’t running from Britomart. Not an unusual occurrence, I’m told. Perhaps that is something the tour operators should be thinking about now, so that when they prepare the travel packs for the many international tourists we are hoping will come here for RWC 2011 they will be advised to bring some sturdy walking shoes and a candle – just incase the lights go off. Again.

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