Although extremely rare, major power blackouts do occur. When they do, it is imperative that there is no loss of essential services.

Major power blackouts in advanced economies are extremely rare, but they do occur. In these circumstances it is imperative that essential services continue to operate. However, during the South Australian power blackout on 28th September 2016 some essential services failed, yet some non-essential services continued to operate as normal. The blackout was caused by an unusually fierce storm. Jay Weatherill, the South Australian Premier argued that the storm was unprecedented.

During the blackout, the Flinders Medical Centre (FMC) was forced to transfer seventeen intensive care patients to a nearby private hospital, when the backup generator failed after operating for an hour. It left the hospital reliant on battery power. A doctor in the hospital’s neonatal unit was credited with saving a premature baby’s life by using a hand ventilator after the unit’s piped oxygen supply was lost. Sadly, twelve patients undergoing IVF treatment were affected when about fifty embryos awaiting transfer were destroyed.

The failure of the backup diesel generator was quickly blamed on a broken fuel pump. Shortly after the storm SA Health’s acting chief executive, Vicki Kaminski said that the failure of the fuel pump could not have been predicted. It was later reported that the generator was starved of fuel because the pump failed to transfer fuel from a storage tank. Alarmingly Ms Kaminski said that the problem could be related to the pump failing without mains power. It appears that the pump itself might not have been connected to the backup power supply.

The storm may well have been unprecedented but the possibility of a pump failure should have been predicted. The pump should have been identified as a single point of failure and as such, appropriately addressed.

While the FMC lurched through the crisis, Coopers Brewery, Australia’s largest Australian owned brewery continued brewing as normal. How was it that Coopers could continue brewing during the blackout, while the FMC failed to provide essential services?

Whereas, the FMC relied on a backup generator to supply electrical power in an emergency, Coopers utilised a gas turbine cogeneration facility, which not only generated more than enough electrical power for its site, but also produced sufficient steam as a by-product for use in its brewing and bottling processes. By generating its own electricity Coopers had certainty of supply.

By taking a more systemic approach, the medical centre might have considered a cogeneration facility to be a more appropriate power supply. The waste heat from such a facility could be used to create steam and hot water, which are essential products for a hospital.

The new Royal Adelaide Hospital, which is nearing completion has a similar yet more comprehensive backup electrical generating system than the FMC. It may have been designed to be more robust than the FMC, but the opportunity may have missed to benefit from certainty of supply and the production of useful by-products. Only time will tell.