VICTORIA'S electricity grid came close to failing and shutting down the entire state during last year's unprecedented heatwave, according to a report to be released in Melbourne tomorrow.
Prepared by a team of researchers at five Australian universities, including RMIT and Monash, the report reveals that demand on electrical power was excessive and that government and emergency services were unable to cope.
With maximum daily temperatures breaking all records, bitumen on the roads and dock areas at the Port of Melbourne left a significant portion of the terminals unusable for days.
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The heat also affected elderly Victorians, with 374 more deaths recorded in the 10-day heatwave before Black Saturday than health authorities would otherwise have expected. More than twice as many people died during the heatwave than in the Black Saturday bushfires.
Warning the heatwave could be a harbinger of the future, the report says climate change will make such events more likely and will ''test the resilience of the expanding metropolitan areas unless forewarning and other adaptation strategies are successful''.
The federal National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility commissioned the report, which is based on a lengthy study by the 16 researchers. Lead author Jim Reeves says heatwaves do not have the same impact in the media as bushfires, cyclones or floods. Yet they can still have a lethal effect and governments have to take this into account.
''If we'd had another two days of those very hot temperatures, Victoria would have been in real strife,'' Mr Reeves says.
The 172-page report says the stress placed on the health, power and transport systems by the heatwave shows how highly vulnerable Victoria is to such events.
Had the bushfires not happened, it says an inquiry would have been held focusing on the need to change heatwave policies and better define the roles and responsibilities of all agencies involved.
''The timing of the bushfires eclipsed the heatwave and thus reduced opportunities for publicising its impacts and for reflection and learning. It should not be overlooked that as many as 500 people may have died as a result of the heatwave in Adelaide and Melbourne,'' the report says
But Melbourne's electricity system stands out as being the most susceptible. So severe was the impact of the high temperatures that electricity supply was in ''a state of near collapse''.
With little spare capacity, the system lacks ''resilience to cope with unexpected perturbations such as the heatwave'', the report says. Victoria receives 6 per cent of its electricity from Tasmania via an underwater cable in Bass Strait but the link failed when a Tasmanian generator failed, adding to the threat to Melbourne's power supplies and creating a ''perfect storm'' on January 30.