Electricity supply in south-west Victoria could remain substandard as planned upgrade is hamstrung | Ralph-Lauren

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A thousand electricity customers in south-west Victoria could be stuck with a substandard supply unless a stalemate is overcome.

Electricity distributors must apply to the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) every five years for a determination on their revenue requirements.

As part of that process, Powercor had submitted plans to the regulator to spend $8.7 million upgrading more than 85 kilometres of single-phase electricity network to three-phase supply.

The project would benefit 1,130 customers and was submitted as part of Powercor’s plans for the 2021–26 period.

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An $8.7m powerline upgrade in South West Vic could be over before it begins
An $8.7m powerline upgrade in South West Vic could be over before it begins

A spokesperson for the regulator said it does not approve individual projects.

However it noted a draft decision to not accept Powercor’s proposed upgrades was based on overstated benefits for the upgrade, and that the cost of the upgrade would be borne by all of Powercor’s customers.

Despite this, the AER spokesperson said, “it is up to the businesses to decide on funding individual projects so Powercor may still invest in upgrading its single wire earth return (SWER) lines”.

Distributor disappointed

Powercor has now dropped the project from its plans.

Power lines run from a telegraph pole on rural land.
A single-wire earth return SWER powerline, which provides single-phase electricity in regional areas.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

A spokesperson said this was because “the AER’s draft determination is clear that our proposal will not receive support in the final decision”.

“We believe our almost $9 million proposal would have provided broad social and economic benefits to these regions,” the spokesperson said.

“But we have offered to the community that we will support their objectives if they seek other avenues to progress these upgrades.”

Generators to stay

For many businesses along the single-wire powerline in Tyrendarra, Strathdownie, Cape Bridgewater and Gorae West, it means they will continue operating with generators.

Picture of Bruce Knowles and his sons Martin and Kerry standing outside their dairy. Powerline and solar panels in background.
Bruce Knowles, pictured with sons Martin and Kerry at their Tyrendarra dairy, is disappointed a planned upgrade to the single-phase SWER powerline, shown in the background, may now not eventuate.(Supplied: Bruce Knowles)

Bruce Knowles has a dairy farm at Tyrendarra.

He said his dairy runs off two 200kVa generators, which run for 12 hours per day because the powerline can’t provide enough supply.

“I find it’s ridiculous, but I have to do it,” Mr Knowles said.

The review process has suggested that customers who directly benefit from the project should be contributing to its cost.

However Mr Knowles said the government and Powercor should fund the upgrade.

“Why should consumers invest in an asset they don’t directly own themselves?” he said.

‘A pain in the arse’

Rick Holmes, who runs an engineering business in Tyrendarra, said his current electricity situation is “a pain in the arse”.

Mr Holmes and his three employees run an 800-square-metre workshop through an inverter with a back-up generator, which not only limits his capacity to expand his business, but also affects his day-to-day operations.

Two men stand near a powerline in a rural area.
Bruce Knowles (left) and Rick Holmes are disappointed that the national energy regulator thinks an upgrade to three-phase power in their part of south-west Victoria is unnecessary.(Supplied: Rick Bayne, Media Masters)

“If you turn one machine on, it usually pinches the power and the other machine will just shut itself off,” Mr Holmes said.

“At the best you can run two machines out of the lot when you’re running through the inverter. That’s why we flick to the generator, so it takes over to help as well.

“It’s not like flicking a switch and saying, ‘yep everything’s cool,’ because you’ve got to be so careful of what else is running when you flick on [or] you could blow the inverter up and there’s another $15,000 gone out the door.”

Mr Holmes said he now has enough work to employ additional staff, however “it would be a waste of time because I haven’t got the power”. He said the staff would have to “stand around watching someone else use a piece of equipment”.

Region’s growth stymied

Executive officer of Food and Fibre South Coast, Natalie Collard said the benefits of the upgrade were clear.

From the total 1,130 connections, she said efficiency improvements at the four connected dairies alone could deliver a $2 million annual economic benefit for the region.

“There are more regional multiplier effects that will be created as well,” Ms Collard said.

“We’ve got a really bold vision for our region when it comes to sustainable technology … we want it all, but unfortunately none of it will run on single-phase wire.”

Last minute hustle

Ms Collard has not given up on the project, with feedback on the AER’s draft determination closing tomorrow.

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