Micro infrastructure important for resilience


New Zealand needs to shift to micro infrastructure to ensure electricity, water and waste systems remain connected during big weather events, a research student says

By Zita Campbell, Local Democracy Reporter

Zainab Rizvi, a PhD student from the University of Auckland, is investigating how to make Gisborne’s energy system more resilient through micro infrastructures.

Ms Rizvi is looking into the plausibility of creating a shared energy system, where houses could have solar panels or other renewable energy sources within their homes.

The houses share the energy they create through a microgrid system, which would then supply energy for the community.

Ms Rizvi is part of Resilient and Sustainable Tairāwhiti (RASTR), a collaboration between Gisborne locals and Auckland researchers exploring ways to conduct community-led planning.

Micro infrastructure could be crucial during extreme weather events, said Ms Rizvi, who changed her research direction after seeing the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle on Gisborne’s connectivity.

“This is what started our research . . . but then we realised the price of electricity will also go up over the next 10 years due to the transition from carbon-based electricity to renewable energy.

“We’re going to start to see energy poverty in New Zealand,” she said, attributing this to increased energy demand.

With the increase in electric vehicles, and government plans to switch to electric public transport, companies like Transpower (who are responsible for the national energy grid) and those who distributed power are needing to increase prices to expand and meet demand, she said.

“These movements are good . . . but it also means energy could become more expensive for people who can’t afford to switch to solar.

Her research was fuelled by the question: “What if the whole system was decentralised?.

“What if everyone had their own system to generate electricity using renewable energy sources and then shared it among everyone?

“Using this system will make New Zealand more resilient, with more capacity.

“The problem with our current grid network is when we disconnect, which happens during an extreme weather event, we lose access to power and communications infrastructure.”

The risk of losing connectivity was highlighted by Transpower, who warned in February that there could be national power outages during winter due to higher demand.

Ms Rizvi explained the benefits of microgrids in a presentation at the Tairāwhiti Resilience Research symposium last month.

“Through the use of a controller, you can control your supply and demand by either connecting to the grid or running independently,” she said.

A software platform, JADE, allows the collection of historical data about water reservoir levels which can be used to inform decisions about electricity generation.

Microgrids had been adopted in Japan for building resilience while in India, they was being used as a small-scale energy source, she said.

New Zealand needed to make sure the transition to renewable energies was “just” — one that everyone could afford, Ms Rizvi said.

Her research is investigating how transitioning to micro-infrastructure/ microgrids would affect the national grid and if it would be feasible for Tairāwhiti.

“Climate change is coming so fast. We have to accept that and then start working towards adapting our energy methods.”

The director of Tairāwhiti regional leadership group Rau Tipu Rau Ora, Amohaere Houkamau, highlighted the importance of Ms Rizvi’s research.

“This project is not just research out of Auckland, but an economic development project for the entire region.”


LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.