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Hot issue - bushfires, powerlines and climate change

We have unwittingly hardwired a bushfire ignition source throughout our flammable landscapes – powerlines. Powerlines can fail under any conditions but the risk increases on days of high bushfire risk…

The role of powerlines in bushfires is raising some pressing issues of climate change adaptation. Paul Hocksenar

We have unwittingly hardwired a bushfire ignition source throughout our flammable landscapes – powerlines. Powerlines can fail under any conditions but the risk increases on days of high bushfire risk, which means powerline failures frequently start bushfires.

The problem was clearly identified by the 2009 Black Saturday Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission. The Director of Energy Safe Victoria told the Commission it was “probably self-evident” that there was an increased chance of fires caused by electrical assets on days of extreme fire danger.

The Bushfire Royal Commission found that on 7 February 2009, electrical faults caused five of the 11 major fires.

This significant risk led the Royal Commission to make a number of recommendations. These are now being acted on as part of the Victorian Government’s Powerline Bushfire Safety Program. More than $750 million is being invested in new safety measures for Victoria’s electricity grid. Changes include improved maintenance of existing infrastructure and roll out of technology to target high risk areas.

This requires approximately $500 million in improvements to protection and controls on Victoria’s electricity network. These “will be funded by electricity distributors and will be recovered at a modest increase in power bills to customers.” The Victorian Government will “provide up to $200 million for the replacement of powerlines in areas of highest bushfire risk over the next eight years”. There will be an additional $40 million Safer Electricity Assets Fund “to address equity and financial hardship issues associated with bushfire mitigation”. Ten million dollars will be provided “to fund research to improve the cost effectiveness of bushfire mitigation”.

A key change in existing infrastructure is the modification of automatic circuit breakers. The current generation of circuit breakers has been shown to cause bushfires by sparking when attempting to reconnect power. However modifications to remedy this fault may result in blackouts on days of high bushfire risk.

Bushfire ignition by power line faults has a serious legal dimension. Powercor paid Horsham residents and businesses $40 million to settle a class action after the Black Saturday bushfires. The electricity provider SP AusNet paid $19.7 million to settle a class action over the Beechworth fire that also occurred on Black Saturday. The company is contesting other class actions relating to other Black Saturday bushfires, all allegedly caused by electrical faults.

Power companies may need to cut electricity during bushfire conditions, but those are the conditions when vulnerable people need electricity most. AAP

Improving the maintenance and quality of powerline infrastructure is a direct consequence of the Bushfire Royal Commission. An unforeseen response is the practice of actively shutting down power distribution systems. Earlier this year there was an extreme heat wave in South Australia. Power distributor Electricity Trust of South Australia cut electricity to some communities to prevent bushfires.

Likewise, Tasmanian electricity provider Aurora Energy signalled it might cut power during times of extreme fire weather conditions. Electrical providers offer guidance for coping with power outages including recommending consumers consider installing their own back up generators.

The consequences of imposed blackouts raise a problem that has received little consideration. During days of extreme bushfire danger, the associated high temperature presents a substantial public health risk. Heatwaves are a significant cause of death and with climate change it is predicted that this rate will sharply rise.

Climate change is likely to bring more frequent extreme fire weather that poses risks from both bushfire and heat stress. The interplay between bushfire risk, power supplies and extreme weather illustrates what actual adaptation to climate change will look like. This is not a passive or painless process.

Improved maintenance and infrastructure will necessarily oblige power distribution companies to increase power prices or seek subsidies from government. The risk of litigation will lead to more power outages designed to avoid setting bushfires. Surviving blackouts will be then be consumers' responsibility.

Legal action from people affected by severe heat stress during power outages could possibly follow prolonged blackouts designed to avoid bushfires. Without care, a difficult situation could spiral out of control. The legal blame game is a poor way of adapting to climate change.

The trick is finding a solution that can balance the costs and risks of managing power supplies in flammable landscapes. This first step is for everyone to understand that we all have a stake in the problems created by climate change.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Keith Bradby, Gondwana Link

    logged in via email

    Excellent article David - a timely, practical focus on one of the intertwined impacts of the somewhat careless way core infrastructure has been developed in Australia. And an excellent reminder of one of the great benefits of many renewables, particularly rooftop photo voltaics - independence from a costly, inefficient and dangerous grid.
    I suggest The Conversation start a series of articles called 'What does climate change look like in our lives?' It is happening all around us know, but as something of a blurry jigsaw that accentuates stresses and issues we are sort of used to (as per the boiling frog). Let's flush out more reality.

  2. Tony Simons

    Director at Bedlam Bay Pty Ltd

    We should move to undergrounding power lines not just for reducing fire risks but also traffic safety and aesthetic reasons.

    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tony Simons

      Agreed; overhead power lines present far more hazards than just their potential to ignite bush fires. I wonder whether there would be savings in maintenance due to, for example, reduced vulnerability to damage and protection from weather.

  3. Philip Harrington

    Principal Consultant - Climate Change

    Very timely. I lived through 'la canicule' in Paris in 2003, when 15,000 people died in that city alone in a 2-week heatwave. The photo is apt, as almost all of the people who died were elderly and died of dehydration, not heat per se.

    I've also been a regulator responsible for power system security. While undergrounding would be ideal, the cost would be very large - perhaps justified in some very high fire danger areas. A more targeted approach - involving extensive real-time weather monitoring…

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  4. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Isolated properties with grid tied PV and rainwater tanks will find their electric pumps won't work if the mains power is out. A house water pump (drawing say 400w) will not pressurise the hoses when the mains are cut. The inverter then switches off the solar electricity so there is no power at all.

    The answer I believe is to have petrol powered water pumps that can quickly connect to the tanks. Of course you have to be at home when the fire arrives and stay mentally focussed. You also need to test the pumps for fuel blockages developed sitting in the shed over winter.

    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Newlands

      It does seems a sensible suggestion, however using petrol seems like 20th century thinking.

      As you know, Petrol is part of the reason we will see increased heatwaves, using petrol to escape these increased heatwaves seems self defeating in a way

      you know, "We should stop burning petrol as it leads to global warming....that's okay, if it happens we can burn some petrol"

  5. Jason Quest

    Project Manager

    Forget burying the cables, use wireless bushfire sensors to monitor all of these dangerous networks 24/7 no matter how the fire starts and at a fraction of the cost of what they are planning. Losing my power my than I am is not going to be fun, lazy f*** bast**** these energy companies

    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jason Quest

      Not lazy, just business as usual. The power distribution network we have is the one that was cheapest to create. Unfortunately, that short-term cheapness carries long-term costs. Like bush fires, exposure to damage by the elements and accidents, the occasional person or animal killed by coming into contact with the lines (downed or in place).

      To my mind, what we have now was a way to get the job done quick and dirty. We should then have gone back to do it right.

    2. Neil Gibson

      Retired Electronics Engineer

      In reply to David Boxall

      A gold-plated electricity network would make electricity unaffordable with underground costs up to ten times overhead costs and after spending a billion dollars on a new line a careless cigarette would still burn the forest.
      Bushfires are a part of the country life and those who build in a forest and complain about forest fires are like those who build on a flood plain and are surprised when it. floods. There are risks in both which can't be removed but should be mitigated as much as possible.
      In 1851 a quarter of Victoria was under bushfires obviously caused by the settlers roaring about in their SUV's interfering with the natural order of things.In the past controlled burning to reduce possible fuel for bushfires and judicious clearing has been vociferously opposed by the Greenies and their fellow travellers. At least one person I heard of was being sued for clearing around his house prior to the bush-fires and oddly his house survived when most others did not.

    3. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Neil Gibson

      Neil Gibson: "... underground costs up to ten times overhead costs ...". Do you have a source for that figure?

      If undergrounding became the norm, would we get better at it? Would costs decline? Are there no costs of overhead lines that putting them underground could save?

      Neil Gibson: "Bushfires are a part of the country life ...". I know the truth of that; I live on the land. Are bushfires the only costs of overhead power lines?

      My neighbours and I have both come close to being victims of overhead power lines. It's amazing how easy it is to forget to look up when shifting a derrick or grain auger. I've seen flying foxes alight on a line, then reach across to another: sparky! The list of costs is long.

    4. Neil Gibson

      Retired Electronics Engineer

      In reply to David Boxall

      You can check the underground costs yourself as I did. Maintenance costs are higher also and outages are longer but less frequent as lightning strikes are reduced. There are obvious benefits for undergrounding power lines but the costs are very high. With limited funds what would you cut back on to find the billions involved - road maintenance,hospitals,pensions ? Most posters on this site believe in the Government unlimited bucket of money theory including most of the authors who don't really live in the real world .
      As for striking overhead lines the results can be quite spectacular when you put a back-hoe through an underground line also. Care is required in both cases.

    5. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Neil Gibson

      David Boxall: "Do you have a source ..."? In response; Neil Gibson: "You can check ...". I'll take that as a no.

      In my younger days, I remember overhead 'phone lines in rural NSW. I gather the same was true in cities and towns, earlier in the century. By the 1960s, all but a few 'phone lines were underground. Seems a good model to me.

    6. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jason Quest

      I have always thought we should build drones to take care of bush fires - like you said, monitor somehow and when fire is detected, a group of drones can go collect water and put it out

    7. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Neil Gibson

      unfortunately, given climate change, we are going to see hotter and hotter summers

      Hummidity is the greatest influence on a fire starting

      ie. you can have little forest cover....but if it's as dry as sand it will burn real quick


      you can have a mountain of forest cover....but if it's all wet it will not catch

      obviously we can't keep it all wet all the time but neither can we continue to ignore this factor

      ideally you would want to reduce fuel load and increase moisture

  6. Roger Dargaville

    Research Fellow, Energy Research Institute at University of Melbourne

    In high risk bushfire areas, especially for isolated homes, would it be more cost effective to have an off-grid solution, PV+battery+diesel (+maybe wind if possible)? These systems are already used where grid connections are too expensive in very remote communities. Might end up being cheaper when the risks of power lines are included in the calculations.

    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Roger Dargaville

      "For homes with typical levels of energy consumption (i.e. in the order of 10 – 30 kWh per day), the ATA SAPS research demonstrated that for the purposes of complete disconnection, the capital and levellised cost of a SAPS is, in the short to medium term, likely to remain prohibitive for the majority of consumers ..."
      ATA = Alternative Technology Association SAPS = Stand Alone Power System.

  7. Perpetua Turner

    Ecologist, Honorary Research Associate at University of Tasmania

    David, perhaps there was some clairvoyancy in the writing of this article? The Forcett Bushfire in Tasmania 2012 has seen the carriage of approx 600 wooden poles into the somewhat isolated area where 3000 people are without power( Poles that were replaced were subsequently burnt again with changing winds turning the blazes back again.
    I have heard (unconfirmed) reports that in the 1967 Tasmanian bushfire the obliterated town of Snug was…

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