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Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: More power to the people

IT’S sobering to be reminded that there are limits to science, technology and Western engineering marvels such as, say, electricity distribution grids.

Nothing man-made is infallible.

Last week’s blackout across North America’s mid-west, north-east and parts of Canada was well summed up by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson: “We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid”.

More pertinent perhaps is the fact that the governor was previously the Clinton Administration’s energy secretary.

It would therefore be interesting to know if he did, or attempted to do, something constructive about this now obvious problem of an ageing power grid while in that position of influence.

Talk is cheap. It is actions voters want.

And if they do not get them they’ll use the ballot box to extract just retribution.

Soon after hearing Governor Richardson’s catchy comment, State Scene tuned into the BBC’s News Hour program and heard a British power expert interviewed.

He warned that the blackout on the Atlantic’s western edge shouldn’t be seen as an exclusively North American problem.

According to him the power grid across southern Germany, over the past several weeks, has been under considerable strain.

And during much of this month, with Europe’s unexpected heat wave, the Netherlands’ grid came within 100 megawatts of its capacity.

One of the limits on power generation in the Netherlands appears to be the disposal of heated water from power stations into cooling ponds.

The Netherlands, not a large country, appears not to have room for more ponds.

The inevitable outcome, no doubt, of the American-Canadian experience will be that some will understandably ask about WA’s electricity position.

Let’s not panic.

An expert State Scene has spoken to says peak consumption is still well below current generating capacity and there’s adequate time to incrementally boost it to keep it ahead of demand.

One major problem, however, is the fact that we’re dependent on the Pilbara to Bunbury gas pipeline that also supplies gas-fired electricity generators for metropolitan Perth.

Thankfully if long-term transmission problems were ever encountered, there’s WA’s south-western coal fired generators. But severe disruption to domestic and industrial gas consumers would follow.

But why only focus on metropolitan Perth and its industries?

When it comes to public services or utilities there are others to keep a watchful eye upon, including water and electricity in isolated parts of WA.

Although Opposition leader Colin Barnett highlighted some of these issues during his July Liberal State Conference, the media ignored his perhaps-prescient warnings.

“For much of regional WA, established infrastructure is either inadequate or rapidly deteriorating with age,” he said.

“The electricity network throughout the South West was developed half a century ago for essentially household demand.

“The two-phase network cannot provide for today’s demand for three-phase power supply. Nor can it provide the quality of power supply needed for electronic equipment.

“There is no alternative to a sustained capital works program to progressively upgrade both transmission and distribution systems.

“Without that, we will not see business investment and employment growth in country areas. The cost is of the order of $500 million, to be financed through Western Power’s ongoing capital expenditure over an eight-year period.

“In the same way, bursting water pipes are common in many parts of the Wheatbelt.

“The pipes are simply too old to deliver water at pressure.

“Western Power and the Water Corporation have the engineering capacity and financial muscle to upgrade critical infrastructure in country WA.”

Mr Barnett next alleged that Labor was “bleeding these key utilities by increasing dividend payments to government and restricting their ability to borrow for much needed capital works”.

“They need to be allowed to get on with the job rather than being held back,” he said.

All of these are excellent points.

Hopefully the Opposition will keep the pressure on the Government and continue alerting electors.

In fairness, however, let’s not forget that Mr Barnett was previously the minister for energy. What was he doing when Rome was burning?

Aren’t his criticisms akin to Governor Richardson’s?

WA’s Greens and their rich eco-activist backers, who have a tendency to query, oppose or block developments that may involve moving a sod of soil further than a metre, also should be made to confront such realities.

Isn’t it time Energy Minister Eric Ripper and Premier Geoff Gallop made a statement to parliament about the condition of WA’s essential services and utilities?

Both men have shown themselves to be inclined to take great note of the political muscle being exerted by the Greens who, unfortunately, aren’t always as circumspect as desired when it comes to issues beyond trees.

The Government could perhaps also think again about its decision to outlay $1.4 billion – at minimum – on a railway track to Mandurah.

Are there other more needy programs on the books that are being quietly sidelined because they don’t offer the same glamour during election campaigns as Mr Barnett has belatedly suggested?

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