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Electricity Safety Bill 2020

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 25 March 2021

Tags: Renewable Energy, Community Safety, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Deputy Speaker, the Greens are happy to support to support this Electricity Safety Bill.

We are concerned by the issues that have been raised by Ms Butler and we will look closely at the amendments that she has proposed when we go into the Committee stage, which is what she has signalled she will do.

We do not have many questions about this except I wanted to make some comments about electricity safety in general and the changing circumstances that we have in Tasmania and around the world as a consequence of the continuing heating of the climate system from the continual greenhouse gas emissions, and the heating of the global atmosphere and the impact that is having on changing climate, and the consequential impact that is having on all large-scale infrastructure, and the safe delivery of electricity services.

It is not something directly detailed in this bill but it is something I raised in the briefing I had and I want to thank the staff for that briefing. I had a number of questions I raised in relation to that.

We have a situation where the combination of bushfires, overhead power lines, particularly distribution lines, and climate change is rapidly evolving. It is a matter of record that the royal commissions into a number of bushfires in Victoria and coronial inquests in relation to deaths from bushfires that have occurred have all raised concerns about the safety of overhead power lines and the capacity for them to ignite fires. The sort of safety equipment and product that has to be fitted in the new installation of overhead power lines or retrofitted to existing power lines to make sure the risk of electrical sparks and the creation of bushfires as a result of that is minimised as much as possible.

The key change to the existing infrastructure that has come as a result of the royal commissions into bushfires has required modification of automatic circuit-breakers. The current generation of circuit-breakers that was in place prior to the 2009 Black Saturday Victorian bushfires was clearly inadequate and was shown to cause bushfires by sparking when there was an attempt by power authorities to reconnect power.

It was found that modifications to remedy that fault could result in blackouts on days of high bushfire risks, so that is a concern in itself but it is also a concern that bushfire ignition by power line faults has a very serious legal dimension and there have been some substantial settlements in the past post the Black Saturday bushfires. Powercor paid Horsham residents and businesses $40 million and they settled a class action in relation to those 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 and that company was contesting other class actions that were allegedly caused by electrical faults.

It is the case that power companies may need to cut electricity during bushfire conditions and that has consequences. Obviously it is an increase in safety for people from the potential risk of bushfires being created by sparks but also it creates real issues for people who are vulnerable who need electricity and who rely on it at a time where it is desperately critical. These are serious and weighty issues. Not all of these are directly relevant to this bill but they are a package of understanding electricity safety. There are very few opportunities to raise them and it is important that we have a conversation and understand how we are modernising our electricity transmission and distribution systems to take account of the changes that have been instituted in other states as a result of the royal commissions there.

Of course there are unforeseen results of actively shutting down power distribution systems and we do not know what they are but we do know that they are weighty matters. Other states do that. South Australia has done that at times. I do not know how much that happens or has happened in Tasmania. I understand Aurora Energy has signaled or may indeed have cut power in extreme fire weather conditions. I assume that must have happened around the Geeveston/Huon Valley region in the summer of 2019-20 when the fires were there, so there are issues I suppose then about the health effects of that and the survival of blackouts and the human and financial cost of having blackouts imposed.

We have to balance the costs and the risks of managing power supplies in increasingly flammable landscapes. I do not understand why there is not an active assessment of moving underground transmission distribution lines underground. I will never forget the image of driving south towards Dunalley after the Dunalley bushfires - it must have been about six months later - and seeing that the whole side of the road for tens of kilometres had new powerlines that were laid out on the ground that were all going to be re-stood in the air. I thought they burnt once, they can burn again. Why are we continuing to put these things above ground in what is obviously a highly flammable landscape? These are big expensive issues for power companies to consider but we have a publicly owned GBE. We should be asking these questions about the safety and the sense of keeping distribution lines above ground into the future.

We hope and expect that with changes to the way energy and electricity is produced that we may have more micro group communities that are able to withstand bushfire conditions and be resilient with their own local power supply which is not affected by being switched off because they have an alternative or a regular power supply which give them resilience from climate change conditions.

I would like the minister to make some comments about whether there is any serious assessment of the infrastructure and the equipment that is used on our powerlines, particularly our distribution network, and how we have made sure we have adopted the recommendations and findings from other states on serious bushfires so we can make sure we do not have the same experiences those communities have suffered.

I have a question in relation to climate change. When we are looking ahead at electricity infrastructure, it has to be safe for long periods of time and electricity infrastructure I expect would have 20-, 30-, 40- or 50 year horizons, depending on what it is. I would appreciate the minister commenting on the climate change risk assessment that is undertaken for all new infrastructure all new electricity infrastructure. What is the climate change risk assessment that is undertaken? Do the safety management plans that are written take account of climate change? Who is doing the work of future proofing our electricity supply system for not only bushfires but for the tremendous additional wind forces we are likely to be seeing much sooner rather than later? We have already can see the changes that are happening on mainland Australia and in Tasmania where we get much more violent and more volatility in the climate system. That means more intense winds and much more intense rain. We are now seeing the intense rainfall that is happening across Australia.

These all have impacts on electricity infrastructure. Who is doing the work of future proofing it. Is it happening? Or are people just hoping that what we have at the moment should suffice? We have to think for long horizons on this sort of stuff.

They are the main questions that I had in relation to this bill. Otherwise I do not have any comments about the rest of it. I look forward to the discussion in Committee about Labor's amendments.