Flat White

It’s time to put power lines underground

24 June 2021

7:37 PM

24 June 2021

7:37 PM

In the Irish stronghold of south-west Victoria, St Patrick’s Day is a notable date on the celebration calendar. 

Danny Boy goes to the top of the pops. 

But March 17, 2018, was an exception. 

On this day, 22 homes, 40 sheds and thousands of livestock were destroyed by fires that swirled and howled around Camperdown, Cobden, Garvoc, Terang and The Sisters. 

It was at this latter location where some of the trouble started. A 50-year-old rotting power pole had snapped in high winds that were gusting up to 104kms/hr. It caught fire. 

Powerlines clashed at nearby Terang.  The electrical arcs ignited the surrounding vegetation. 

At Camperdown, tree limbs fell onto powerlines. 

Once the smoke dispersed and the torched landscape was revealed, locals talked about how so much of the devastation could have been avoided if the powerlines were underground. 

Nearly eight years earlier, those very sentiments were recommendations in the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission. 

Of the 67 Recommendations made by the Royal Commission Chairman, the Honourable Bernard Teague AO, it was Recommendation 27 that has retained potency. 

173 people died in the February 7, 2009, Black Saturday fires. As the Commission findings put it, `Black Saturday wrote itself into Victoria’s history with record-breaking weather conditions and bushfires of a scale and ferocity that tested human endurance.’ 

In his Preface, Justice Teague wrote ‘The recommendations we make give priority to protecting human life…’ He said `It would be a mistake to treat Black Saturday as a ‘one-off’ event…’ 

Five of the 15 fires that became the Black Saturday inferno were ‘associated with the failure of electricity assets’.  The report noted that although the risk of fires starting from electricity assets is normally low, that risk escalates on ‘days of extreme fire danger’.  

It said ‘the age of the assets contributed to three of the electricity-caused fires on 7 February 2009’.  

It lamented the `electricity industry’s economic regulatory regime’ which ‘favours the status quo and makes it difficult to bring about substantial reform.’  It urged the replacing of ageing electricity infrastructure in light of the ‘unacceptably high’ number of fires started by electricity assets ‘at more than 200 a year’.  

It urged the State and associated businesses to ‘remove one of the primary causes of catastrophic fires in Victoria during the past 40 years.’ 

And so it was that Recommendation 27 detailed the replacement of powerlines in Victoria with ‘aerial bundled cable, underground cabling or other technology that delivers greatly reduced bushfire risk.’ It argued this should happen within 10 years in areas most at risk and progressively from there. 

But it is not just bushfire that demands better. 

Recent days in Victoria have proven the weather is a mistress with a mind of her own – and a contempt for the private lives of mere mortals. 

Right now, there are floods in the east of the state. 

In the Yarra Valley region east of Melbourne, thousands remain without power. 

The wild storms that shrieked, brought down trees.  And the trees brought down powerlines.  

Having endured a political lockdown of two weeks, the storm has forced a further lockdown for the tormented locals.  

Homes are without power, businesses are without power. There is no heating for many. Showers are cold.  The nights are freezing. Mobile phones can’t be charged.  The batteries of laptops and iPads have slowly given up their last.   

Too bad for those working from home.  Too bad for those businesses that still can’t operate. 

Too bad for the elderly freezing, or young babies swaddled in layers inches thick.  

This was a storm with fierce intent. It was a night of terror for the locals. 

“With the wind howling, and the terrifying crashing sound of trees falling, I couldn’t help but think if my house was next.  With no power and no phone reception, I felt terribly isolated and vulnerable,” one local recalled. 

Can you even try and imagine the menace? It’s a dark horror. 

It makes one realise the nonchalance with which we take access to reliable power: the simple act of flicking a switch and a light going on. Or opening a fridge and the food being cold.  

Such a dilemma could spur a debate on climate change.  But the solution to this problem is somewhat more doable and less global; no barbeques on a Cornwall beach required.  

Quite simply, this power-less problem wouldn’t exist in the Yarra Valley, or Gippsland or the Dandenongs today, if the powerlines were underground. 

If Bernard Teague’s words of wisdom 12 years ago had been taken seriously by this State Government and the electricity industry, the lights might be on in the Valley. 

Of course, that is the simple version. 

While his recommendation was specifically for the replacement of SWER, or Single-Wire Earth Return, power lines, it cannot go without basic observation that any effort to put electricity infrastructure underground is a safer, more eloquent, respectful and preferable way to proceed in the future. The trees can fall, but the power will proceed.  

Yes, the problems are complex, the costs are huge, the engineers will have to step up and Teague’s recommendation is pushed beyond his intent.  

But if the coronavirus response has shown us anything, it’s that Governments have demonstrated that they can do whatever they want – if they want to. 

Clearly, the lives and livelihoods of the elderly, the shop keepers, the school children aren’t worth much when it really comes down to it.  

It’s a story that could have been told in 2009, or in the south-west in 2018, or in the Yarra Valley in 2021. 

As the Victorian Government looks to grid-the-state to join the random dots of renewable energy to the national network – the chorus for underground cabling grows ever louder. 

Now is surely the time to get it right? 

They have stopped the state for a virus.  Will they build the state for the future? 

In the communities of Western Victoria where the first of these national renewable-link projects is happening, Recommendation 27, in a broader interpretation, is neon-lit in the minds of the locals along the 190km transmission line highway. Blokes with big voices have yelled their frustration from the back of town hall meetings at country football rooms. 

There is an underground movement happening.  

As Justice Teague put it in 2009, the need is to ‘give priority to protecting human life.’ 

It could be yours. 

Beverley McArthur is a Liberal Legislative Councillor for the Western Victoria Region.

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