Power pole safety concerns spread

Aurora Energy is not the only Otago power network with a dangerous attitude towards safety and maintenance, a lines company chairman says.

Marlborough Lines chairman David Dew said OtagoNet, which operates the lines network in the Clutha district, parts of Central Otago and coastal Otago from Waitati to Palmerston, had ''very similar'' issues to the ones Aurora was facing.

Graphic: ODT
Graphic: ODT

Marlborough Lines owned 51% of OtagoNet until September 2014, when a ''shoot-out'' caused by a disagreement over maintenance levels resulted in The Power Company and Electricity Invercargill buying its share for $153 million.

Mr Dew was also critical of Aurora over accusations levelled against it in recent weeks, and suggested there was poor performance at lines companies across the South.

''There just seems to be an attitude down that way of 'wait till it falls over and then we will fix it', which we found completely unacceptable.''

OtagoNet is managed by PowerNet which also manages the lines networks in Southland.

PowerNet chief executive Jason Franklin strongly disputed Mr Dew's comments, saying workplace and public safety was its ''number one priority''.

It abided by health and safety regulations and spent more than $10 million a year on the OtagoNet network, which included expansion of capacity and replacement of infrastructure.

It's health and safety practices were audited each year.

He would not comment on whether a dispute over maintenance standards, with Marlborough Lines insisting more needed to be spent to upgrade the network, resulted in the buy-out.

''We are obviously not at liberty to discuss the various reasons which resulted in the ownership change in 2014.

''We have moved on.''

It had 22 condition-zero poles for replacement within three months and 299 condition-one poles for replacement within 12 months.

This was a manageable number of such poles given it had a standing forward order with its pole supplier of 152 per month.

Mr Dew had a very different perspective, saying significant investment was needed to bring OtagoNet's infrastructure, including its power poles, up to scratch.

''There is just no way a network should be run like that.

''It got to the stage that we were so concerned about the standards being applied that we actually insisted on taking over engineering and trying to sort it out.''

The issues were identified and PowerNet ''just didn't like it, so they triggered the shoot-out and paid us to go'', Mr Dew said.

PowerNet should be worried its management of OtagoNet's infrastructure could expose them to similar amounts of scrutiny being experienced by Aurora, especially given harsher health and safety laws were now in force.

He did not have extensive knowledge of Aurora's network, but was not surprised to read about the trouble it was in.

He disagreed with the suggestion lines companies all over New Zealand were facing similar issues to Aurora.

''That's a lame excuse.'

''[The issues are being faced] everywhere in the country where people haven't maintained their network, but that's not many places.''

Marlborough Lines only had about 15 red-tagged poles and most of those were old railway lines.

From what he had read in the media, Aurora had an unacceptable level of compromised poles that were at risk of falling over and injuring or electrocuting members of the public or workers.

''I'm not an engineer, but as someone who knows a little bit about this industry, I just don't think it's acceptable to have poles falling over.''

Aurora Energy chairman Dr Ian Parton responded to Mr Dew's comments with a statement saying it was ''not appropriate'' for him to respond to comments made by another chairman.

''However, what I can reiterate is that we have an aged network and some elements need replacing, which is what we're doing.

''Because of the network's age, our approach to its management is conservative, which is one reason why we have marked so many poles for replacement.''

It was ''very hard'' to compare networks as each one was different and a range of factors determined approaches to asset management.

''Given the age of our infrastructure and the exposure to severe weather that we have in Otago, our network performs well and reliably for our customers.''

Network Waitaki chief executive Graham Clark said it only had eight red-tagged poles due to be replaced within the next three to 12 months.

Aurora Energy is under investigation by the Commerce Commission because of the duration and frequency of system outages or interruptions on its network.

vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

Comments

this is the inevitable consequence of "corporatising" this infrastructure and treating it as an asset and not as a public utility. Power lines have been used by DCC and Invercargill City to subsidise rates with the result that line charges have gone up and the infrastructure has been run into the ground to pay for the stupid "purchase prices" of these services that the community owned. This is simply yet another consequences of the ill-conceived reforms of local government and public infrastructure undertaken in the 1980s and 90s coming home to roost - this is a political issue not a management one - it is the local politicians including several of the present mayors within the region who pushed these ill-advised "asset sales" thinking that they would have a windfall to play with - but a very expensive windfall for the local power consumers, who oddly enough are also the local ratepayers.

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