Recent storms left the state of South Australia, and it’s 1.6 million residents totally without power, after a cyclonic storm blew in. Not before the power was back on, and with the help of some sloppy journalism, the storm had become a political stoush over renewable energy versus fossil fuels, with everyone up and including the Prime Minister laying the blame for the outage on SA’s over reliance on renewable energy. It was soon pretty evident, from the pictures, through to the analysts, that in fact what was responsible was a very big storm blew down the powerlines.
This all had me thinking about powerlines. I am fascinated by powerlines. While they are an industrial blight, there is something about their form that I find beautiful. Seeing the images of the transmission towers, bent like paperclips in the South Australia storms was disturbing. I am always interested in how different states, and countries build their powerlines. Needless to say, I have lots of shots of powerlines. Godfrey Reggio’s Koyannisqatsi, has timelapse photography of powerlines, designed to show us that life is out of balance. I find them mesmerising.
Electricity, and its generation and distribution was very much part of my growing up. I spent the first four years of my life under the powerlines. My father worked as an electrical operator for the State Electricity Commission in Victoria, monitoring and maintaining the power supply into Melbourne from the Latrobe Valley. We lived onsite of the largest Terminal Station, Rowville (RoTS). Possibly my earliest memory is jumping off a vehicle at his work and splitting my lip open. Well, the pain, maybe. I spent many a Saturday or Sunday with my Dad at work. His work was pretty boring, sitting at the control desk, watching the dials, writing down numbers every hour. It was punctuated by a trip about the terminal station yard checking all the transformers. This was in a little electrical jeep, which I was allowed to drive around the yard. Exciting for an 8 year old.
In 1983, it was found that the SEC was responsible for a number of the fires, and deaths associated with the Ash Wednesday fires. Overheating fuses were ejected into the bush, and being hot, fires started. I think this is when we started to realised that what we were called so called natural disasters, were not “natural”. The SEC were found liable and had to pay significant damages. For some time they were unable to get insurance as a result of their exposure. This was an early demonstration of whether you call a bushfire a natural hazard, or not.
Of course history was to repeat itself in 2009, although this time it was privately owned companies that were held responsible through the Bushfires Royal Commission (although in settling large class actions they did not accept liability). I recall as we were looking at potential memorial sites in Strathewen, one site had a good feeling about it, until we turned around and could see the 550KV transmission lines overlooking the site. No one said anything, but it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the memorial site.
One of the first roles I had to play when I joined the Department of Human Services was to provide input into exemptions for power outages. The state was experiencing power shortages as a result of industrial disputes and hot weather. We gave exemptions to young families, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions and disabilities. It was fascinating staffing the call centre. Little old ladies ringing up to ask if they could turn on their cooler for a little bit during dinner. You are exempt, madam, you can turn it on anytime. 23 year men ringing up and demanding to put on the airconditioner because it was too hot. What can I do to cool down, they screamed when told they weren’t exempt. “Have a bath, go to the pool”. You learn a bit about humanity
It goes without saying, power, is of course essential. I learnt during the week at a forum I was at that houses can become unsafe if they are over 30C or under 17C. This becomes critical if the occupant has a chronic health condition. But, if you are on a low income, there is a reluctance to turn on the heater or airconditioner, as we saw in the heatwaves in Adelaide a few years ago, where pensioners were hit will bill spikes.
Power outages can move from being an annoyance, to serious for many. If you are reliant on power for a range of mobility aids and life support, this becomes very serious. Food can start to go off, and if you are on a low income this can also become a serious issue, as you can’t afford to replace it. I recall tragic case of a number of young children dying in a house fire, when they used candles unsupervised during a black out. Even, I noticed amongst my facebook feeds, friends who couldn’t get out of their homes (powered gates, anyone). It’s why it’s important to plan for extensive power outages. I don’t think we truly understand the impacts of power outages, particularly the long term ones.