$10bn power line fire plan

$10bn power line fire plan

18 December 2011

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia — SAFEGUARDING Victoria from catastrophic bushfires sparked by power lines would cost up to $10 billion and add as much as $247 a year to household power bills, according to the taskforce set up by the state government to guide its response to the Black Saturday tragedy.

But, in its confidential report to the government, the taskforce has advocated a more modest target for reducing the risk of loss of life and property, saying Victorians want ‘‘increased safety with minimal cost increases’’.

Bushfire experts warn this ‘‘minimalist approach’’ could fail to avert another catastrophic fire.
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‘‘You run the risk of having it all happen again. You’ll reduce the number of fires that you have but I think you will still get significant fires occurring,’’ electrical fires expert Trevor Blackburn told The Sunday Age.

The Bushfires Royal Commission found five of the 11 main fires that swept the state on February 7, 2009, including the Kilmore East blaze in which 119 of the 173 victims died, were caused by electricity faults or failings.

The commission recommended the progressive replacement of all single-wire earth return power lines and 22-kilovolt distribution feeders in Victoria with insulated cables or underground cabling within 10 years.

The Sunday Age understands the final report of the Powerline Bushfire Safety Taskforce, which the government will release by the end of the year, gives five options for replacing such aged poles and wires.

Those options range in cost from $200 million to $10 billion, and would reduce the risk of such bushfires by 49 per cent to 82 per cent respectively.

The top package would add between $115 and $247 to the average household power bill by replacing approximately 40,000 kilometres of power lines in extreme fire risk areas such as the Dandenong, Otway and Macedon ranges and north to the Great Dividing Range. Each option also includes the installation of protection technologies, such as automatic reclose devices, to further limit the risk.

But the taskforce said a cost of $1billion was more appropriate, and would be more acceptable to Victorians. A survey of 1500 people last December found they were willing to pay an extra $100 a year to cut such risk, but as little as $24 if the measures were likely to affect electricity supply.

The taskforce said replacing a relatively small proportion of power lines in high-risk areas would significantly mitigate the severity of fire loss.

By targeting 2400 kilometres of power lines in such areas under the $1billion option, the risk of bushfire would be reduced by 65 per cent. That option would add just $30.64 a year to power bills if limited to the affected distribution areas, or $11.56 if shared statewide.

But the University of New South Wales’ Dr Blackburn, who gave evidence at the royal commission, said that option would fail to cover all areas at risk.

‘‘It seems to me that considering the total chaos and havoc and loss of life caused by Black Saturday, I would have thought it wouldn’t be quite that difficult to get people to spend a little bit more money,’’ he said.

Melbourne University fire ecologist Kevin Tolhurst said any risk reduction below 65 per cent would leave communities overwhelmed in major bushfires.

‘‘That is the minimum level you need to have an effect on the community. I would have thought 60 to 80 per cent reduction is getting closer to the level where the community will have more power to defend itself,’’ Dr Tolhurst said.

Energy Minister Michael O’Brien declined to comment ahead of the release of the report. ”Our response will be sensible and mindful of the costs involved,” a government spokesman said.

Opposition energy spokeswoman Lily D’Ambrosio said the government’s repeated promise to replace all power lines in accordance with the royal commission’s recommendation was ”financially irresponsible from the start” and the government ”must now tell Victorians that they will either replace all these lines at a massive cost to families and businesses, or take a lesser option and break their promise”.

The taskforce, whose members included Victoria’s major electricity distributors, found 80 per cent of bushfires in 2008 and 2009 were started by power lines on total fire ban days, 53 per cent of which were due to line failures.

The state’s power line protection regime was not fast enough to minimise the likelihood of power lines starting bushfires, the taskforce found. It recommended reducing the numbers of automatic restarts on faulty lines on code red or total fire ban days, to reduce the risk of ignition.

But it did not support either the temporary or permanent disconnection of electricity supply to high risk areas.

Taskforce member Ian Porter, chief executive of the Alternative Technology Association, criticised this approach, saying trials of stand-alone power supplies run by the taskforce were flawed.

”We don’t think it gives enough weight to stand-alone options. The major concern was with the government and distributors and we were like a little ant trying to bite an elephant on the bottom,” he said.

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