Powerlines a ‘time bomb’

VICTORIA will have more days of catastrophic bushfire loss unless its ageing electricity system gets an urgent multibillion-dollar overhaul to prevent it starting fires, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Senior counsel assisting the commission, Jack Rush, QC, called for the upgrade and criticised the state’s electricity safety regulator as weak, saying it had surrendered its authority over power companies.
Jonathan Beach, QC, for power company SP AusNet, said the suggested upgrades would cost up to $7.5 billion in its distribution area alone and could force consumers to pay 20 per cent more on their power bills every year for 20 years.
Mr Rush said that without substantial reform “we will continue on days of signifi-cant fire risk to have the sort of losses that we sustained on February 7”.
Mr Rush said the ageing overhead powerline network set up in rural areas in the 1950s should be “done away with” over the next 10 years and replaced by aerial bundling of wires, or by wires being put underground. “Aerial bundling technology pretty much will eliminate bushfire risk . . . Undergrounding would reduce bushfire risk and reduce maintenance and mean longer life.”
Five of the biggest fires on Black Saturday, including the Kilmore East fire that killed 119 people, were allegedly started by electrical lines or fittings. In the Kilmore East fire, investigators reported that a line broke and fell to the ground, producing sparks that ignited dry vegetation.
Mr Rush said a 2004 study found the Powercor network alone had 11,374 route kilometres of conductor (electrical lines) aged between 55 and 64 years, and 10,318 kilometres aged between 65 and 74 years.
Mr Rush said the commissioners should recommend that:
■Parts be replaced when they get old, rather than waiting until they break or look worn. “At the moment the components are not replaced until it’s recognised by inspectors that they have failed or have deteriorated . . . Evidence was given that if the aircraft industry worked on that basis, we would have aircraft falling out of the sky.”
■Inspections of lines be done every three years, as was the case under the public-owned State Electricity Commission before privatisation, instead of every five. “(This) would result in a 70 per cent reduction in the number of in-service failures.”
■The government change regulations to ensure power companies had new obligations to upgrade systems.
■Devices that restore high-voltage power to faulty lines be disabled for the whole fire season on one kind of line, and modified to work only once on another kind of line, to avoid them triggering fires.
Mr Rush was scathing of Energy Safe Victoria, which regulates safety in the power, gas and pipeline industries, saying it had “in effect surrendered its position of authority in the regulatory relationship”. He said its “position of weakness” was made clear by the way power companies dismissed its criticisms.
An audit of Powercor’s bushfire mitigation plan for 2008 had concluded that “the majority of rusty ties and conductors were not being detected in the asset inspection process. When that conclusion was communicated by ESV to Powercor, Powercor simply rejected it”.
Mr Rush also accused ESV of not having the expertise “to meet the distribution companies on an equal footing”. “It is necessary to reform ESV so that it is properly funded so that it is able to undertake a proactive role.”
He said replacing ageing infrastructure would be expensive but that the cost of Black Saturday probably extended to billions of dollars.
Mr Beach, for SP AusNet, said putting wires underground would cost $7.5 billion for the SP Ausnet network alone. “You would be looking at an annual price rise of 20 per cent per annum for the next 20 years.”
Powercor’s submission said that disabling or limiting the devices that restored power to faulty lines would mean long periods without power for affected people in country Victoria.
Energy Minister Peter Batchelor said the government recognised the need for changes to the network to reduce bushfire risk. “We have committed to introduce new legislation to increase the powers available to Electricity Safe Victoria to enhance its capabilities and capacity to regulate the electricity industry,” he said.
“We have convened a national workshop in April 2010 with relevant stakeholders . . . to consider options for reducing fire risk from ageing electricity assets.”
Black Saturday 2009: Allegedly five of 11 major fires
Ash Wednesday, 1983: Four of eight major fires
April 1980: Fire at Pigeon Ponds, near Balmoral
February 12, 1977: Nine of 16 fires
January 1969: Fires in northeastern Victoria
121 — or 70 per cent — of the 173 deaths on Black Saturday were caused by the failure of electricity assets, according to lawyers representing 1100 people in class actions against power companies.
SOURCES: Submission yesterday to the Bushfires Royal Commission by Jack Rush, QC; claims made in earlier hearings by Tim Tobin, SC; and the 2008 report of a
Legislative Council inquiry on the impact of public land management practices on bushfires.