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MIT Technology Review

Australia had plans to prevent fire blackouts. They just weren’t ready in time.

Bushfires have shown how vulnerable modern infrastructure can be—but there are projects underway to boost isolated communities when power and communications fall down.

January 16, 2020
Photo of residents as they watch the developing conditions near the town of Sussex Inlet on December 31, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.Photo of residents as they watch the developing conditions near the town of Sussex Inlet on December 31, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.
Photo of residents as they watch the developing conditions near the town of Sussex Inlet on December 31, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.
Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The first bushfire alert that Eleanor Limprecht got was a text message she received on the morning of New Year’s Eve. She was staying with her family for Christmas, holed up in Narrawallee on the south coast of New South Wales—a popular holiday destination. When the warning came through, she switched on the television for more information, but within minutes the power failed. She tried to check the fire service bushfire app on her phone, but suddenly there was no signal. Meanwhile, the sky turned blood red from the approaching fires.

“It definitely did freak me out, but I was also trying to stay calm,” she says. Her husband and mother-in-law had left in the car not long before the alert came through, to check on their family property nearby. “There was an hour or two where I had no power, no phone—I didn’t know where they were,” she says.

Eventually, to her great relief, they returned safely. Limprecht’s mother-in-law dug out an old battery-powered radio so the family could pick up emergency broadcasts from the local Australian Broadcasting Corporation service. All around them, neighbors were sitting in their cars on the street, in driveways, using their car radios to do the same.

The next few days, Limprecht says, were surreal. The town was blacked out except for the few shops that had generators. There were queues at petrol stations; people were panic-buying flashlights, batteries, milk, and bread. Stores had to dust off old manual credit card processors in order to take payments—without electricity or telecommunications, the cash machines around town were dead.

“All the oldies were happy because they had their battery stuff and they had their cash under the mattress,” Limprecht says.

Most coverage of Australia’s catastrophic bushfires has focused on the dramatic extent of the fires and the damage they have caused—more than 10.7 million hectares  (26.4 million acres) of land burned, an estimated 1 billion wild animals killed, and at least 27 people dead.

Our house in the Blue Mountains came within a whisker of being burned. We weren’t there, having evacuated days before. But I spent those days flitting between seven different sources of information, all of which relied on access to power, internet, or a mobile phone signal, trying desperately to learn what was happening in our town.

photograph of Bianca outside her home
Harold David

Many weren’t lucky enough to have access to power and information. For thousands of people, their experience of this fire has borne a close resemblance to the start of a modern disaster movie. When all the modern infrastructure of communication and power fails, it’s easy to see just how vulnerable we are.

During these bushfires, whole regions have been cut off from electricity and telecommunications, many at the critical moment when fires were approaching. At one point on New Year’s Eve, a 110-mile stretch of the New South Wales coastline was without power or telecommunications, affecting tens of thousands of residents and tourists. In Victoria and South Australia, fire-related outages affected many thousands more.

"We have to build it again—let’s build it right. Let’s build it resilient against fires."

The impact of this failure can be severe. Electricity is essential during bushfires, particularly where remote communities rely on it to power water pumps for firefighting and drinking water. It powers the communications and broadcast infrastructure that keeps people informed and in touch. Without it, people can be stranded, panicked, and left exposed to the rapidly changing conditions.

So how do you protect power supplies—and the services that can help people survive bushfires—when things go wrong?

Underground or off the grid

One approach is to bury it all. After the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria that took place in 2009, an investigative commission recommended moving power lines in high-risk areas underground. The government in Victoria committed to an AU$1 billion program (US$700 million). The reasoning was that burying power lines doesn’t just keep electricity flowing to homes during disasters; it also prevents fires from happening in the first place. Some of the country’s most catastrophic blazes have been attributed to power lines; in California, local utilities have admitted that power lines were responsible for several of the state’s major fires in recent years. Wires in some of the highest-risk areas in Victoria have now been buried.

But putting everything underground is very expensive, says Jill Cainey, general manager of networks at Energy Networks Australia, the national industry body for electricity transmission and distribution networks.

Those costs are even higher because of the vast distances that electricity networks must span in Australia, one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. The long feeder lines that currently connect isolated places to the central grid are also extremely vulnerable to bushfire, and outages can be prolonged while repairs are made.

As a result, some energy providers are looking to get more remote locations off the grid altogether. Western Power—a government-owned utility in the state of Western Australia—has been testing stand-alone power systems for remote and isolated communities. The setup uses a combination of solar panels, batteries, and a back-up generator. A 12-month trial found that off-grid systems avoided more than 200 hours of outages compared with houses still connected to the central grid.

“Microgrids” can also improve electricity stability in smaller bushfire-exposed communities. These can operate as fail-safe systems that can be activated when there’s a threat of bushfire, but let communities run off the central grid the rest of the time.

“Most of the time they are connected, but when you know that there’s severe weather coming and you might be exposed, then you prepare your microgrids to be isolated,” Cainey says. This could happen before the threat arrives, or kick in if the connection to the central network fails.

There are complications, however.

Off-grid solutions that rely on solar power have to contend with the fact that solar cells can be compromised by smoke. One analysis found that output from photovoltaic cells on rooftops in Canberra was reduced by 45% on New Year’s Day as a result of heavy bushfire smoke. And there has been a lot of it. Earlier this week, NASA announced that smoke from the fires had circumnavigated the globe.

The high ground

The loss of important services during bushfires is nothing new to Australia. In fact, it was anticipated by many who predicted that this season would be catastrophic, says Cormac Farrell, an environmental scientist specializing in bushfire protection at the environmental consultancy Umwelt.

“It was considered to be almost inevitable that some loss or damage would occur,” he says, “simply because they’re in such a difficult position on the landscape.”

Telecommunications towers represent probably the greatest design challenge when it comes to bushfire resilience, says Farrell, because they need to be located at high points.

“You want them at the top of the hill, because that’s where you get the best reception, you get the best coverage,” he says. “At the same time, at the top of a hill is the worst place to be in a fire.”

Farrell says there are two main failure points with telecommunications towers: the plastic cabling and the base station hut. The first could be protected by cocooning it in huge quantities of fire-retardant insulation. The second challenge would require something more involved, such as putting the base stations underground, protecting them with masonry or concrete rather than metal, or building them into the landscape in such a way as to minimize their exposure to direct flame.

“You want [telcom towers] at the top of the hill, because that’s where you get the best reception. At the same time, the top of a hill is the worst place to be in a fire.”

It’s not as though the impact of bushfires hasn’t been taken into account at all. Currently, this infrastructure must have a protection zone around it cleared of plants and combustible material. But Farrell says that standard is based on a historical understanding of bushfires and has not been updated to account for the impact of climate change on the fires’ frequency, severity, and duration.

“That’s the fundamental problem,” he says. “The climate is moving beyond our ability to design for, and the ability to predict and model fire at those higher fire danger indexes.”

However, he sees the experience of this devastating bushfire season as an opportunity to learn, and do it better next time.

“How do we get in there and actually pull apart some of these facilities that have been damaged or destroyed, and understand how they failed?” he says. “We have to build it again—let’s build it right. Let’s build it resilient against fires.”

Emergency services

In the meantime, service providers are trying to find ways to keep the lights on and the lines open. According to national broadband network provider NBN, most broadband services were lost in bushfire-affected areas because of power outages—not direct damage to equipment.

To offset those losses, NBN set up satellite dishes to enable access to their satellite broadband service at 20 bushfire evacuation centres across New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

“These satellite services are helping to connect families and friends and are providing vital communication services to areas that might otherwise not have had them,” said Rachael McIntyre, general manager of NBN local, in a statement.

National telecommunications provider Telstra, meanwhile, deployed some interim measures, such as a mobile satellite cell for internet access  and a mobile exchange on wheels to affected areas. The company also made free calls available from fixed phone booths in bushfire-affected towns such as Narrawallee.

The long lines of people outside these phone booths provided a bit of levity amid the fear and uncertainty. Limprecht’s  children—already perplexed by the absence of Wi-Fi—were even more puzzled by the queues snaking out of the unfamiliar human-sized boxes.

“My kids were like, ‘What even is that?’” she recalls with a laugh.