Price hikes to pay for fireproof powerlines

Price hikes to pay for fireproof powerlines

11 April 2011

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Australia — HIGHER electricity prices and the removal of some consumers from the power grid during fire-ban days are among a number of measures being investigated in response to one of Australia’s worst natural disasters.

More than two years after the Black Saturday fires killed 173 and left thousands homeless, officials are still trying to determine how to deal with the biggest challenge from the royal commission — what to do with powerlines in high risk areas.

Victorian Bushfire Response Minister Peter Ryan told The Australian that no clear response would be known until September, when a special taskforce was due to report on the multi-billion-dollar dilemma.

Mr Ryan said cost was one of the key issues being examined, following reports billions would be needed to be spent insulating, bundling or sending so-called single-wire earth return powerlines (SWER) underground in high risk areas.

Asked whether consumers would pay, he said: “Well, depending on what government does by way of a contribution, it comes back to consumers in the sense of taxpayers.”

But he conceded there was a prospect of some costs coming directly to consumers as well. Industry sources said one serious option still being considered was to cut electricity to high-risk zones on fire-ban days, but this could require providing alternative power sources, including solar and even diesel generators.

There are close to 30,000km of SWER lines in Victoria alone, making wholesale burying of the wires almost impossible.

One of the key challenges faced by the taskforce is the fact that the difficulty of placing lines underground varies markedly from area to area. In regions with hard, rocky ground, it is not an economically viable option.

Power lines have been identified as the cause of many fires that day, fires that were responsible for 119 of the 173 people killed across Victoria. Power lines were also blamed for deaths in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, which killed 75 people in Victoria and South Australia.

The difficulty and expense of placing SWER lines underground have resulted in officials examining other options, including cutting supply to high-risk areas such as the Dandenong and Otway ranges, sources said.

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission called for the progressive replacement of all SWER powerlines. The report proposed a 10-year deadline in high-risk areas, followed by lower-risk areas as lines reached the end of their engineering lives. The commission called for the progressive replacement of all 22-kilovolt distribution feeders.

The previous Labor government refused to implement the commission’s recommendation on burying powerlines.

Opposition bushfire response spokeswoman Jacinta Allan said Premier Ted Baillieu had fallen silent on his pledge to deal with the fire danger.

“The Baillieu government plan will hike up power bills significantly, yet Mr Baillieu has failed to explain how he will protect Victorians from (bearing) the brunt of the costs,” she said.

Energy provider SPAusNet, which has faced legal action over Black Saturday, said the company was sending lines underground in new estates but would not be changing existing lines.

“It’s not something we do retrospectively,” spokesman Joe Adamo said.

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