State’s big blackout to be reviewed

Zaida Glibanovic

CALLS have been answered: the state government will review Victoria’s biggest blackout.

The state government will commission a supplementary independent review into the electricity distribution system’s response to the devastating February 13 storms that left half a million Victorians without power due to significant damage to power infrastructure.

The review will be led by a panel of independent experts, not politicians, the state government stated.

The independent review will aim to focus on the operational arrangements and preparedness of energy distribution companies to respond to these extreme weather events.

The push to weather-proof Australia’s electricity grid has grown stronger after the storms, with Minister for Energy and Resources, Lily D’Ambrosio, stressing the need to make the grid more resilient in the face of climate change challenges.

The state government review into the blackout will include research into the distribution businesses’ management of the incident as well as the timely and effective restoration of supply. The report will also compare the operating models of energy network companies.

It will also investigate if there were any opportunities that could have reconnected customers more quickly, such as the availability of field crews and technical expertise through the use of mutual aid agreements and resource sharing within Victoria, or from interstate resources.

Also probed will be communications with customers, the effectiveness of information platforms and services, such as outage trackers, and preparedness to administer relief to impacted communities.

The Australian Energy Regulator’s will advise on the energy resilience requirements of energy infrastructure companies.

The state government says that the final scope of the independent review will be given detailed consideration, and will build on the work of the Electricity Distribution Network Resilience Review that followed two storm events in 2021 and focused on the resilience of physical grid infrastructure.

The recent catastrophic storm event that damaged 12,000km of powerlines and poles across the state’s electricity distribution businesses caused widespread power outages.

The state government says that as the climate changes, catastrophic events and destructive weather patterns will become more frequent and more extreme. It is critical that electricity distribution networks are able to mitigate, manage and recover quickly from these events.

This review will be undertaken in addition to investigations from Energy Safe Victoria into the tower collapse and the Australia Energy Market Operator into system response and security.

Ms D’Ambrosio said the state government was looking for answers regarding the state’s blackout.

“For many Victorians this emergency situation is still live, we are working closely with distribution companies to connect the remaining Victorians to power as our first priority, after reconnecting 90 per cent of customers in the first 48 hours,” she said.

“We want to get to the bottom of exactly what has occurred, and an independent review will ensure that private distribution companies learn valuable lessons from what happened.”

However, the state Opposition criticised the announcement, saying the review came after the Opposition first demanded a Parliamentary Inquiry into the state’s energy transmission network.

The Leader of the Opposition, John Pesutto, said the announcement was a “sham” with “no details about who will conduct it”.

The Shadow Minister for Energy, Affordability and Security, David Davis, said Labor wanted to have a secret review.

“Victorians deserve a public inquiry where experts can be called to give evidence and shed light on what went wrong,” he said.

“Labor has received a number of warnings in multiple reports about the problems with our electricity infrastructure yet has chosen to ignore them all.”

A recent news article in The Age reported that an assessment done by AusNet Services found almost one in every seven of the state’s 13,000 transmission towers is damaged and has extensive rust.

Recent reports state much of Victoria’s transmission network consists of structures originally designed between the 1960s and 1980s, with the average transmission tower age assumed to be more than 50-years-old in 2024.

AusNet, the private company that control those transmission lines, said their historical infrastructure could not withstand the extreme weather events of the day.

Recent reports published in November, 2023 by the sector’s watchdog, Energy Safe, uncovered issues with maintenance on Victoria’s transmission network.

The storm event of February 2024 has many discussing the possibility of underground power lines to avoid the same power outage disaster. But placing the network underground is more expensive, given the extreme costs associated with digging trenches for tens of thousands of kilometres worth of transmission lines in the state.