Laura Newell: How can a little bit of drizzle bring down our power supply?

Headshot of Laura Newell
Laura NewellThe West Australian
A fire crew attends a power pole fire in Karrinyup this morning.
Camera IconA fire crew attends a power pole fire in Karrinyup this morning. Credit: The West Australian

Like 37,000 other households in the State, ours in the northern suburbs of Perth awoke to an eerie silence on Monday.

Eyes blearily squinting against the early morning light, we wondered what could have disturbed our slumber so early on a public holiday before the alarm went off. It took my husband and I a second to figure out what was different — no air con and no pool pump buzzed away in the background, the white noise of our everyday electrically-powered lives removed.

It was perhaps handy that it was a public holiday — limited rush-hour traffic and many businesses already shuttered to enjoy the extra day of rest. Nothing, thank goodness, to the disruption Kalgoorlians faced in January, thanks to a cut lasting many days and leaving them in steaming-hot conditions with no air con, limited ability for businesses to trade and tonnes of food spoilt as it lay in un-powered fridges and freezers in homes around the city.

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For our household this week, it meant a small shift in plans (heading into the office rather than working at home, rethinking the croissants being heated in the oven for breakfast, instead eating them cold), but no major dramas. Not getting a cup of coffee before hitting the road was annoying but not debilitating.

But while finding myself unexpectedly driving 20km down the Mitchell Freeway to work at 6.15am, it all got very intriguing, with random sections of the road having working lights and others stubbornly dark. The same went for traffic lights as I entered the inner suburbs. What could possibly have caused such a patchy yet clearly extensive outage?

In Kalgoorlie, it was thanks to a “freak” supercell thunderstorm taking out transmission towers — which, while unacceptable for it to be out so long, was at least a solidly reasonable cause in the first place. But here in metropolitan Perth, it was nothing so acceptably dramatic — simply the wrong kind of rain (and a little dust).

In a phenomenon I’ve never before witnessed, the wet stuff mixed with “recent dust and pollution” on power poles caused them to catch fire — in large numbers. About 70 of them went “poof”, according to Western Power.

Now as a Brit I’m very used to the “wrong kind of leaves” stopping trains in their tracks (literally), and “extreme temperatures of more than 30C” melting roads — facts that never fail to amuse Aussies I’ve ever explained those scenarios to. But never have I seen a bit of drizzle cause such chaos.

In fact, in the UK, where drizzle is the default meteorological torture the locals are well versed in, the idea that it could cause blackouts seems almost as absurd as the “wrong leaves” halting public transport seems to Australians.

So the question is, what do we do to ensure it never happens again? Well, it sounds like not much if our Premier is to be believed. He described the outages as the “reality” of the power network shifting between seasons. Begrudgingly, I admit he may not be wrong.

Short of a Statewide sinking of power lines — and as anyone who watched the Pilbara Underground Power Project go down a decade or so ago will tell you, that’s eye-wateringly expensive — we’re probably a bit stuck with the issue in the same way Brits are with those pesky autumnal arboreal droppings.

I’m guessing Western Power probably wouldn’t approve of sending Aunt Gladys out with her trusty feather duster.

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