Powercor's secret report advocates eight-fold increase in new poles

Powercor's secret report advocates eight-fold increase in new poles

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Jack Kenna Junior and Bernie Harris with the smouldering remains of the pole that snapped and sparked a fire at The Sisters on St Patrick's Day last year.

Jack Kenna Junior and Bernie Harris with the smouldering remains of the pole that snapped and sparked a fire at The Sisters on St Patrick's Day last year.

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A secret Powercor maintenance report predicts the electricity giant will have to lift the replacement rate of wooden poles eight-fold.

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A secret Powercor maintenance report predicts the electricity giant will have to lift the replacement rate of wooden poles eight-fold in an attempt to keep Victorians safe from bushfires.

The prediction comes as 171,415 third-rate mountain grey gum and messmate wooden poles have reached their critical end of life stage.

The tsunami of pole replacements in the next 15 years has been identified after a rotten and termite-riddled mountain grey gum pole at The Sisters collapsed at 8.50pm on St Patrick's Day last year, sparking a devastating fire.

That The Sisters/Garvoc fire was one of four caused by electrical infrastructure in the south-west that night.

Compensation action by 189 victims of The Sisters/Garvoc fire led to a Supreme Court trial against Powercor and inspection service Electrix which was settled on confidential terms mid last week.

The tipping point of the trial was the discovery of an October 28, 2019, reliability centred maintenance report during cross examination that outlined Powercor's inspection regime failures.

Key was the revelation that 384 poles had failed in the past 10 years even though only 210 were reported to the state's independent regulator Energy Safe Victoria (ESV).

The report revealed 75 per cent of those 384 poles had not been identified during inspections as being of concern.

The report also revealed data that "indicated the inspection process was not adequately detecting or managing a condition-based problem, a small but important portion of the time".

Those points raise queries about just how poles are checked.

ESV earlier this year found there were no systemic issues in Powercor infrastructure system and that it was fit for purpose.

Questions are now being asked about how that could be true when ESV was not aware of the holes in the inspection regime or the 384 failed wooden poles.

The regulator is due to release a final report into the condition of power poles in south-west Victoria soon.

ESV was identified in the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission as a weak regulator and this could spell the end for it in its current form.

Questions have been put to ESV about how it could make its findings based on limited knowledge.

Those same questions have been put to Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio.

Good wood standards for poles have been lifted and Powercor has planned more frequent inspections in an effort to quell community concerns.

Those changes came after the pole at The Sisters known as 'pole No. 4' was checked less than four months before the St Patrick's Day fires, in a process estimated during the compensation court hearing to have taken just 90 seconds.

The wind on St Patrick's Day peaked at 104km/h while the Australian standard for wooden power poles is to withstand 180km/h winds.

Over the past decade Powercor has on average replaced about 1000 poles a year, a fraction of 1pc of its 567,000 pole system.

Powercor has pledged to replace 2200 by the end of this year.

Mid last month on a catastrophic fire risk day, 41 Powercor lines failed, blacking out almost 100,000 customers in Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.

A Powercor spokeswoman said the company was confident in its network safety.

"We have a robust pole inspection and replacement program," she said when contacted about the report's findings.

"When operating an above ground network like ours, assets such as poles can fail for a range of reasons, including from car accidents, lightning strikes, weather and environmental conditions.

"Reports like this one provide the detailed information we need to responsibly invest and maintain our assets and deliver power safely and reliably.

"We have provided this report to ESV.

"Information from the report will also be included in our 2021-2026 pricing submission to the Australian Energy Regulator to support our plan to increase the number of poles replaced on our network.

"The report also validates the improvements we made to our pole inspection process in March. These changes involved updating our pole inspection process to increase the frequency of inspections and the number of poles being replaced.

"The report reconfirms that our unassisted failure rates are below the national average.

"Customers can get more information about our pole inspections here."

The story Powercor's secret report advocates eight-fold increase in new poles first appeared on The Standard.

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