Australian heatwave causes firms to power down, Sydney braces for blackouts

[MELBOURNE] Major energy users on Australia's east coast shut down on Friday, and residents were asked not to go home and cook or watch television, to ease demand on strained power supplies as an extreme heatwave moved from the desert interior to the coast.

Authorities were preparing to temporarily suspend power to selected areas of New South Wales (NSW) state late on Friday to prevent overload just days after 40,000 homes and businesses lost electricity in the state of South Australia.

NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin asked residents to consider reducing their energy usage after work. "Rather than going straight home and turning on the television and cooking, (you might) want to consider going to a movie, going out to a shopping centre, keeping the load low, every bit like that helps," Mr Harwin told journalists in Sydney.

A paper mill, water treatment operations and Australia's largest aluminium smelter, Tomago, were among those that halted operations to conserve energy, with many industrial users required to do so under their contracts.

The Tomago smelter, which exports to Southeast Asia, Japan and China, is the single largest consumer of electricity in NSW and is jointly owned by Anglo-Australian group Rio Tinto and Oslo-based Norsk Hydro. Dispatch power prices surged on Friday as blackouts loomed.

Weather forecaster Olenka Duma said a build-up of heat in Australia's interior was being pushed east across NSW, the country's most populous state. "It was like the windows and doors were closed for a long time, and now a weather front has dragged the hot air here," Ms Duma, an official of the Bureau of Meteorology, told Reuters.

The mercury climbed to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory on Friday, while Saturday is expected to set a record for the hottest February day on record.

It was too hot for people to go out, said Ned Qutami, owner of six mobile ice cream bars in Sydney. "I'm not doing any business today, I'm just sitting in the air-conditioning at home," said Mr Qutami, who runs Sydney Ice Cream & Coffee in the city's beachside eastern suburbs. "People at the beach are either in the water or heading home. No one is hanging around to eat ice cream." The intense heat and power outages have sparked debate over the country's energy security, after the market operator told power companies in South Australia on Wednesday to switch off some customers' power supply for a short spell to manage demand.

South Australia depends on wind for more than a third of its power supply, and the wind died down at the same time as people started cranking up air-conditioners.

That was the latest in a string of power disruptions and electricity price spikes to hit the southern state, including a state-wide blackout that forced copper mines, smelters and a steel plant to shut for up to two weeks last September.

The problems have sparked a review of the national electricity market and energy policy on how to cope with rapid growth of wind and solar power and the closure of coal-fired power plants that have been essential for steady supply.



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