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Light rain, heavy response

Guy Chalkley

Guy Chalkley
Chief Executive of Western Power
Photo courtesy of Community News Paper Group


It is now a year since the Waroona fires and yet again we are reminded that Western Australia has some extreme weather patterns in January. We have also had major storms in January.

If you had a power outage from the pole-top-fires or other issues on the electricity network yesterday, and may still be waiting for your power to come back on, I’m sure you are frustrated.

What seemed like some rather innocent rainfall did cause some headaches for the network. While this may happen every year, it isn’t something any network can completely guard against and we have targeted maintenance programs which are improving constantly the way we manage our assets.

So how can light rain cause so many outages? And what can be done to stop it happening again?

These were common questions yesterday when a significant number of customers, some 37,000 of our over 1-million customers, lost power.

Rest assured, we’re doing everything we can to safely and efficiently get your electricity back on. We have all available emergency crews working on it and have reallocated other crews away from planned work to attend to the issues, including contractors.  

We had four-times the normal amount of crews work through the night, but eventually we had to send some of them home for a rest. All were back at first light this morning. They will stay on the job until it is finished. We also are restoring power faster than another major weather event in 2012.

So what happened yesterday?

Many of the outages were caused by safety mechanisms on the network being triggered after the rain. But these events also sometimes cause physical damage including small pole top fires, which have to be repaired.  Pole top fires are not unique to WA but due to weather patterns in the West, can cause significant issues for the electricity network.

We are aware of this and do significant maintenance to prepare the network as best as possible. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to completely prevent these, particularly given the size and scope of our network. We have 800,000 poles and if you laid our wires end to end, they would stretch almost three times around the earth.

Pole top fires can happen when there is a run of very hot, dry and windy days followed by a sudden misty, cold front (the Perth temperature plunged from 36C to 23.5C in one day).

Those dry windy days result in lots of dust and pollution on our insulators which sit at the top of poles to stop electricity reaching earth. The sudden – and unfortunately light – rain allows paths or “tracks” to be created on the dust and pollution on the insulators that enables electricity to jump across. Usually it trips a safety device that cuts power. However current can also sometimes flow, causing metal fittings and bolts to get extremely hot, burning the cross-arm and potentially impacting the pole itself. It’s not just fires though. Sometimes wires will fall after being hit by trees or heavy branches.  

Ironically, we would have preferred a downpour to help thoroughly wash the insulators – but more on this shortly.

We had more than 250 incidents yesterday where physical damage occurred - across an area stretching from Dandaragan north of Perth to Bunbury in the south. We have to attend the sites before we can safely restore power. Some of these works - including replacing poles – continues. We understand your frustration over outages but that hopefully gives you a sense of the scale of the complex restoration task.

So, why can’t you do more to stop this happening? This was another understandably common question yesterday.

We will investigate the cause of each incident more precisely in coming days, to see if we can improve our regular scheduled $400 million-per-year maintenance program of our poles and wires. Western Power spends almost $90 million a year in preventative maintenance, which includes siliconing insulators, managing trees and vegetation near wires and high-pressure cleaning of insulators. We spend another $314 million in replacing and repairing poles and wires each year.

So why don’t you wash more lines more often or silicon more insulators?

It is not practicable to wash poles and wires more regularly across our vast network, as to be effective we would have to constantly wash them as the dust regularly builds up.

We also silicon tens of thousands of insulators each year, which prevents the dust and pollution being a problem, with priority given to high bushfire risk areas. We do this as an alternative to washing.

Why don’t you underground more power lines?

Western Power, along with State and Local Governments, place underground as many power lines as possible, and almost 60 per cent of the Perth metropolitan area already has underground lines.  But this is costly, and the challenge is to balance the best use of taxpayer funds with the safe and reliable supply of electricity.

To put it into context, we had to repair more than 100 poles yesterday, but we have more than 800,000 poles and towers and more than 1 million customers. Other utilities around Australia also have significant above-ground networks.

I hope that helps explain some of the challenges we face, and I would ask for your patience as our crews restore remaining power.

Compensation is available for customers who have been without power for more than 12 hours through the State Government’s extended outages scheme which can be accessed through the Western Power website.

Western Power extended outages payments are an acknowledgement of inconvenience but we acknowledge will not necessarily cover the losses incurred. 

We also encourage customers to contact their insurer about food spoilage cover.

If customers have experienced further loss or damage, claims can be submitted online.

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