OPINION: Unreliable power needs a new approach

It’s high summer in my electorate of Moore and power reliability is on everyone’s mind. Communities such as Dongara, Port Gregory and Mullewa, who frequently have power outages, have already suffered with an interrupted power supply this year. All of these communities have suffered long term and frequent power outages over many years. Residents and businesses are frustrated and exasperated. They suffer both emotionally and financially. As someone from Dongara commented on my facebook page recently, ‘and today, the eighth day of the year has just seen the sixth power outage in the area. When is this going to be fixed?’ I have been asking this very question since being elected in 2013.

In the interests of greater transparency and as recommended in the Independent Review of Christmas 2021 Power Outages, Western Power have now added a ‘Network reliability’ tab to their website. Of the top 10 Local Government Areas impacted most by power outages, the top five shires are in my electorate – Perenjori, Northampton, Irwin, Coorow and Chapman Valley.

Residents of the Perenjori Shire were without power for over 72 hours in the 2021/22 year, with an average 13 interruptions per customer. The Northampton Shire was without power for more than 65 hours and the Irwin Shire, 63 hours. Responding to a motion in parliament last March about power reliability, the Energy Minister referred to the challenges for people who choose to live in Port Gregory, Horrocks (Northampton Shire) and Dongara (Irwin Shire). He said ‘they get all these benefits but one of the risks is that they are in a more difficult position for the electrical infrastructure.’ The Minister is essentially saying ‘you get the lifestyle, but you can’t have a reliable power supply’. One of the government MPs in the Upper House previously suggested Mid West residents purchase their own generator if they wanted reliable power.  I don’t agree. These customers are paying good money for an unreliable power supply.

As in previous years, Western Power issued a Media Release on 15 November 2022, declaring it ready for the forthcoming bushfire season. The utility has spent some $158 million on vegetation management and replacing poles and conductors. Why then the outages already this year?  

One of the reasons given for lengthy power outages in the regions is Western Power’s reluctance to restore power during a Total Fire Ban. This is a matter I’ve raised countless times in parliament. The provision of power is essential  for community safety, wellbeing, livestock water and to allow business to operate. A sensible and collaborative approach must be adopted by both Western Power and DFES.

There is no doubt that providing power to Western Power customers across a vast 255,000km2 network is challenging but we need to look at alternative systems. By way of example, the Perenjori Shire spans 8,000km2, has 341 Western Power customers and there are 3,534 power poles and 692km of power lines in that shire.

The Victorian government’s $7 million Community Microgrid and Sustainable Energy Program will increase bushfire and energy resilience in selected communities by employing solar power, batteries, diesel generators and advanced microgrids. A separate $10 million Microgrid Demonstration Initiative will see the development and installation of microgrid demonstration projects across Victoria. These projects have proven their viability in edge of grid locations, lowering energy costs and ensuring more reliable and resilient power supplies, while working to meet that state’s renewable energy target. Businesses using the Euroa microgrid report a 30 to 40 percent saving in energy costs.

Michelle Shepherd’s Independent Review of Christmas 2021 Power Outages recommended Western Power consider improved ways to prepare for and manage outages, including batteries, microgrids and standalone power systems. Western Power need to act now. 

Shane Love is Leader of the Opposition and the Member for Moore