Key power learnings from bushfire season

bushfire

By Dan Agnew, Managing Director of Eaton ANZ

The catastrophic bushfire season put the poles and wires of Australia’s power to the test, exposing the vulnerability of our telecommunications networks. As the fire continued to spread over the last couple of months, more than 100 mobile phone towers were damaged, cutting off vital communication across Australia.    

The main reason for these outages was not fire damage to equipment, and although this did play a role, a majority of network outages were caused by a loss of power.

When backup power supplies to these sites ran out, the power went out, cutting people off from essential communications and supplies. 

Australia is not the first country to experience outages like this. When Hurricane Katrina struck the US in 2005, the loss of power knocked out electricity in several cities, causing service failures for all of the big mobile networks in the Northeast. To avoid such catastrophes in the future, the US Federal Communications Commission mandated that US carriers install backup batteries that last 24 hours, but by 2008, complacency had set in and mandatory backup battery time was reduced back to eight hours.

If we are to learn anything from the US experience during Hurricane Katrina and the recent bushfires in Australia, it is the criticality of backup power. The potential of hotter, drier and windier conditions in the future will likely increase the danger of more regular and severe bushfires. This means adequate preparation is critical not only for business and households, but also for operators of the telecommunications networks.

Australian Telcos and relevant Government authorities have recognised this and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) have committed to an industry wide review of the impact the disastrous bushfires had on the nation’s telecoms networks. But there are key learnings on why mandatory minimum regulations for backup power is critical to help us avoid repeating the same mistakes in 2021.

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Managing non-critical loads

Our communications infrastructure relies on the grid for power and when there is no power, there is no connectivity.  

This loss of power presents a huge challenge for people who live in areas prone to bushfires as it cuts them off from accessing critical supplies. For example, when people tried to fill up their cars with fuel before getting out of a bushfire zone, EFTPOS machines were down because there was no power. Nowadays, with less and less people carrying cash, power is the difference between being able to (purchase fuel to) leave, or not.

This can be remedied by shedding non-critical loads to focus power resources on keeping the essential services, like EFTPOS machines up and running. Implementing non priority load shutdown at communications sites will help to keep the minimum critical comms channels open and reduce power loads to extend battery runtimes.

Additionally, remote monitoring could be introduced at communications sites to help network managers understand power loads in real time and predict the remaining battery reserves.

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Environmental considerations

Typically, in Australia mobile towers in remote locations may have approximately eight hours backup, but in the case of a bushfire, it can take days for a technician to safely access a site to top up generators and restore power. In these situations, backup generators with longer backup battery power is essential.

Thankfully, there are plenty of backup options available that also leave a lighter carbon footprint on our environment.

Solar panels can be added to DC systems at mobile towers to further supplement battery backup and provide extended backup times. Communication sites located at the top of a hill or in National Parks pose their own challenges.  Putting up solar panels or even just gaining access to these kind of sites in emergency situations can be difficult. If space is limited in the current mobile site or communication sites, extended batteries can be placed outside for easier access. 

Lastly, replacing lead acid batteries with lithium batteries can help to extend back up time. For a typical communications tower site battery, up to 50 per cent more capacity is available in the same physical space when swapping lead acid batteries with lithium ion batteries, extending eight hours back-up to more than twelve hours.

Next steps

We know that most telecommunication sites affected by bushfires were due to loss of power, not direct fire damage. This has highlighted the necessity for 24-hour backup power to be put in place across vulnerable bushfire zones with special consideration given to flood prone areas.

We must avoid complacency and extend the minimum backup time to ensure that residents and critical services, such as fire, police and ambulance services, have the power necessary to communicate during natural disasters.