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CPC's blackout mistake is a lesson about getting the basics right

Wednesday, August 16, 2017
The China Post


Two careless engineers were all it took to knock out power for millions of households and to eject a government minister.

The state-run oil company CPC explained on Wednesday that two engineers ignored standard operating procedures when changing the power supply units for a control system at the Tatan Power Plant. They failed to switch the system from automatic control to manual control before their operation, leading to a signal error that closed the valves of two LNG supply pipes connected to the plant. Without fuel, all six operating generators at Taiwan's largest LNG power plant shut down, taking 11 percent of the nation's total power output at the time off the grid.

It was not the first time the two engineers – one from the CPC and another from a subcontractor, both with substantial experience in the job – ignored SOPs when changing power supply units, according to the CPC, which also pointed out no one was supervising the engineers. The firm admitted that this reflected “a long-term systemic problem” when people are just not adhering to stringent standards.

Carelessness among government workers and contractors as well as the military have been plaguing Taiwan for some time. Many have already made the connection between this incident and the misfiring of a supersonic anti-ship missile in June last year. In another example, Taiwan's first self-made satellite almost missed its flight to the U.S. last month because someone forgot to file the proper paperwork for customs clearance.

These events were caused by basic mistakes that could have been avoided by taking simple precautions. The officer who fired the missile forgot to check if the control console had been switched to war mode. Those responsible for the satellite had the time to organize a send-off party, complete with choir performances and merchandise designed specially for the occasion, but not to check if they had the documents needed.

The problem is that the public seems not to care about these basic errors unless they are directly affected. Even in the missile misfire debacle, in which a fisherman was killed, people seemed to care more about its political ramifications than the seriousness of the mistake itself. There were even suggestions that it might be a blessing in disguise, as it gave Taiwan a chance to show off the capabilities of its missiles.

If Taiwan does not get serious about getting the basics right, similar problems will happen again.

The fact that just two engineers could cause such havoc in Taiwan has shown that the true problem is more profound than the sleaziness of one state-run corporation.

The long-term problem is Taiwan chronically low reserve capacity. It is generally considered prudent for a nation to keep its power reserve capacity between 10 to 20 percent to provide a buffer for breakdowns or sudden increases in demand. If that had been the case for Taiwan, the nation would have been able to withstand the Tatan plant failure. The country's reserve capacity nowadays, however, is substantially below 10 percent and can go as low as 2 to 3 percent in summer peak hours. It leaves very little margin for error.

The problem is not going to be solved in the short term. Even if the government acknowledges the hole in its energy strategy, it would take time to build new facilities and to find new resources. For now, the government does not even regard low reserve capacity as the key problem and instead has named changes to the power distribution system as the priority. When meeting with a business delegation last month, President Tsai Ing-wen attributed the power crisis last week to “mistakes” and “natural disasters.”

Some might see Tuesday's outage as an evidence of Taiwan's need for nuclear power. But that's not necessarily the case. Talks about restarting the suspended nuclear generators in Taiwan were in fact beside the point in Tuesday's case. The Tatan plant's failure took 11 percent of output off-grid -- the suspended nuclear generators would not have been able to fill that gap.

Tuesday's event can even be used as an argument against nuclear power. As many have pointed out, how can people trust state-run firms to run nuclear reactors if they can't even handle a few gas valves?

Governments under both political parties have been failing to handle the hot potato that is nuclear power in Taiwan. The two major parties have taken opposite sides on the issue but have achieved the same thing: they have failed to truly tackle the issue and have instead deferred it again and again, letting the white elephant take up all the space for discussion of Taiwan's energy strategies.

It is time to change that.

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