Power Blackouts: Action Needed, Not Excuses

Monday 2 February 2009 – The Brumby Government must stop making excuses for Victoria’s recurrent power blackouts, and take action to actually fix the problem, Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources Robert Clark said today.

“The government says it is not responsible because the blackouts have been due to ‘extreme weather events’ and climate change. But climate change and its effects are not new issues – the government has been talking about them for years, and telling the community we need to prepare for ongoing problems,” Mr Clark said.

“Yet again, the government has been all talk and no action.

“Instead of just bombarding the community with black balloon advertisements, the government should have been acting to strengthen Victoria’s ‘poles and wires’ transmission and distribution infrastructure to cope with more extreme weather. The government’s Essential Services Commission identified climate change as a key challenge in 2007, but Labor has done nothing about it.

“This is the fifth year in a row in which tens of thousands of customers have lost power for hours due to problems with the distribution or transmission network. There were significant improvements in power reliability following privatisation, but the number of minutes customers’ power is cut off each year has been progressively increasing since 2004.

“After the 2005 and 2006 blackouts, the government held inquiries which recommended a range of improvements, including call centre upgrades, better contact with field staff, contingencies for emergency situations, and use of alternative communications systems like SMSs.

“The Essential Services Commission promised it would increase its monitoring of the performance of power companies, but little has changed. There is only limited use of SMS, and most customers don’t know about it anyway.

“Instead of making excuses, the Premier should be on the phone to the ESC, the national regulators and the distribution companies insisting that these communication problems are fixed and that work commences immediately on strengthening transmission and distribution infrastructure.

“Simple things would make a big difference to letting customers know their power company is aware of their blackout and has a timeline to fix it – things like clearer notices on bills about who to contact when there’s a blackout and how to get through to them, improved standby call-centres to cope with high call numbers, and upgraded technology to allow customers to use SMS to report faults and receive messages about when power will be restored,” Mr Clark said.

The government also needs to take action to prevent state-wide power shortages and rolling blackouts. The causes of the problem are well known – greater use of airconditioning in summer causing increasing spikes in demand, population growth and inadequate peak power supply and/or interstate interconnections.

However, the government has allowed the demand spikes to continue to grow and the state’s reserve power supply capacity to shrink.

“The government needs to do more to encourage additional peak load power plants, such as resolving planning delays and keeping construction unions under control. It also needs to ensure there are better arrangements for commercial and industrial customers to agree to reduce or shed load when needed – either in demand peaks or when there is a power supply failure,” Mr Clark said.

“The government also needs to speed up the availability of long-delayed smart meters. These meters, if properly designed, allow consumers to automatically manage their power supply and receive rebates or other incentives for saving power at times of peak demand.”

When Labor was elected in 1999, it promised it would:

Guarantee reliable supplies of gas, water and electricity through an Essential Services Commission with tough new powers. (Source: Labor’s Pledges for Victoria)

“There are no excuses for the government standing by doing nothing while blackouts just keep on happening,” Mr Clark said.