A SECRET Powercor maintenance report predicts the electricity giant will have to lift the replacement rate of wooden poles eight-fold in an attempt to keep Victorians safe from bushfires.
The prediction comes as 171,415 third-rate mountain grey gum and messmate wooden poles have reached their critical end of life stage.
The tsunami of pole replacements in the next 15 years has been identified after a rotten and termite-riddled mountain grey gum pole at The Sisters, in south-west Victoria, collapsed at 8.50pm on St Patrick's Day last year, sparking a devastating fire.
The Sisters/Garvoc fire was one of four caused by electrical infrastructure in the south-west that night.
Compensation action by 189 victims of The Sisters/Garvoc fire led to a Supreme Court trial against Powercor and inspection service Electrix which was settled on confidential terms last week.
The tipping point of the trial was the discovery of an October 28, 2019 reliability centred maintenance report during cross examination that outlined Powercor's inspection regime failures.
Key was the revelation that 384 poles had failed in the past 10 years - even though only 210 were reported to the state's independent regulator Energy Safe Victoria.
The report, which Australian Community Media has obtained, revealed 75 per cent of those 384 poles had not been identified during inspections as being of concern.
The report also revealed data "indicated the inspection process was not adequately detecting or managing a condition-based problem, a small but important portion of the time".
Those points raise queries about just how poles are checked.
ESV earlier this year found there were no systemic issues in Powercor infrastructure system and that it was fit for purpose.
Questions are now being asked about how that could be true when ESV was not aware of the holes in the inspection regime or the 384 failed wooden poles.
The regulator is due to release a final report into the condition of power poles in south-west Victoria soon.
ESV was identified in the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission as a weak regulator and this could spell the end for it in its current form.
Questions have been put to ESV about how it could make its findings based on limited knowledge.
Those same questions have been put Victorian Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio.
Community pressure from south-west residents has forced massive changes within Powercor with Australian Community Media's The Standard highlighting the issues since the fires.
Good wood standards for poles have been lifted and Powercor has planned more frequent inspections in an effort to quell community concerns.
Those changes came after the pole at The Sisters known as 'pole No. 4' was checked less than four months before the St Patrick's Day fires, in a process estimated during the compensation court hearing to have taken just 90 seconds.
The wind on St Patrick's Day peaked at 104km/h while the Australian standard for wooden power poles is to withstand 180km/h winds.
In the past decade Powercor has on average replaced about 1000 poles a year - a fraction of one per cent of its 567,000 pole system.
Powercor has pledged to replace 2200 by the end of this year.
Mid last month on a catastrophic fire risk day, 41 Powercor lines failed, blacking out almost 100,000 customers in Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.
A Powercor spokeswoman said the company was confident in its network safety.
"We have a robust pole inspection and replacement program," she said when contacted about the report's findings.
"When operating an above ground network like ours, assets such as poles can fail for a range of reasons, including from car accidents, lightning strikes, weather and environmental conditions.
"Reports like this one provide the detailed information we need to responsibly invest and maintain our assets and deliver power safely and reliably.
"We have provided this report to Energy Safe Victoria.
"Information from the report will also be included in our 2021-2026 pricing submission to the Australian Energy Regulator to support our plan to increase the number of poles replaced on our network.
"The report also validates the improvements we made to our pole inspection process in March. These changes involved updating our pole inspection process to increase the frequency of inspections and the number of poles being replaced.
"The report reconfirms that our unassisted failure rates are below the national average.
The spokeswoman said customers could get more information about pole inspections via www.powercor.com.au/safety/safety-around-our-networks/pole-inspections/
Campaigner calls for meeting with Premier
St Patrick's Day bushfire campaigner Jill Porter is demanding a meeting with Premier Dan Andrews to raise community concerns on the eve of what's tipped to be a devastating summer.
Mrs Porter sent a letter to the premier on Monday after a secret Powercor maintenance report was unearthed during a Supreme Court compensation trial involving 189 victims of The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire.
Mr Andrews has previously declined to meet with The Sisters dairyfarmer and his office was contacted for comment again on Tuesday.
Mrs Porter has been a strident critic of ESV which was highlighted as a weak regulator in the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission.
Mid this year ESV found there were no systemic issues with the 567,000 Powercor pole-system and it was "fit for purpose".
The explosive secret Powercor maintenance report can only be seen as contradictory to that finding - especially as Mrs Porter's independent testing found other poles in similar degraded condition.
In her letter to the premier, Mrs Porter said that fires caused by aged and failed electrical infrastructure, such as the four main fires in the south-west, were preventable.
"These fires are deadly, occur most frequently on days of catastrophic risk (code red) and are responsible for more than 80 per cent of deaths in Victoria's bushfire history," she said.
"I have previously demonstrated the failure of network distribution businesses to inspect, maintain and replace their networks to a safe standard.
"I have also shown ESV to be an ineffective regulator. ESV reported in July 2019, Powercor's regime as 'fit for purpose'.
"My community is asking - fit for whose purpose?
"The recent Powercor 'Reliability Centred Maintenance' Report (October 2019) validates my findings and reinforces my calls for essential and immediate change.
"The report shows Powercor does not have a long-term sustainable plan currently in place to manage its fleet of ageing and near end of useful life poles.
"ESV has not been active in understanding these issues despite knowing since its inception that electricity poles were old and failing."
Mrs Porter said rural communities, such as hers, were devastatingly vulnerable to bushfires caused by failing electrical infrastructure, despite the royal commission's findings.
"Safety means by definition, free from danger. It is your government's duty to protect its constituents and ensure our safety. Under the current regulatory regime this is not occurring," she wrote to Mr Andrews.
"As the Premier of Victoria, the responsibility of our safety ultimately rests with you. I urge you to meet with me to discuss this important issue.
"Together, we need to make urgent change ahead of the potentially catastrophic bushfire season.
"The network distribution companies must be made to improve their regimes and ensure a robust distribution network. Rural Victorians have a right to be safe."
Mrs Porter has previously met with Victorian Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio but she said there were a number of key issues the government had not addressed.
She said the soon-to-be announced new head of ESV had to be from outside the organisation due to ESV's inability to regulate the distribution businesses.
"When will penalties apply a financial disincentive to network businesses who do the wrong thing?" Mrs Porter asked.
She was referring to ESV maximum fines of $250,000 while like regulators such as WorkSafe and the Environment Protection Authority had maximum penalties of about $3 million fines.
"As we move towards 'safety-based' regulation (prescribed as best practice throughout the world) we should be mindful that in order for this type of regulation to be effective, it requires both a capable and independent regulator and network businesses who want to do the right thing," she said.
"As demonstrated so devastatingly in the St Patrick's day fires, we have neither. There have been 10 years of inaction since the 2009 VBRC. We all deserve to be safe."
In response to the secret report, Ms D'Ambrosio said she was aware there was significant community concern.
"And expect all distribution businesses to be putting public safety first," she said
"Energy Safe Victoria has a duty to protect the public and hold those doing the wrong thing to account - and they have laid charges against Powercor, with the first hearing to be held next month."
ESV laid charges against Powercor over the Terang/Cobden and The Sisters/Garvoc bushfires, but only after a Supreme Court compensation case in Warrnambool showed Powercor had data which would have revealed the dangers if that data had been reviewed.
The charges are listed for a first hearing in the Warrnambool Magistrates Court during January.
A spokeswoman for Ms D'Ambrosio said ESV had also been undertaking an investigation into the long-term sustainability of Powercor's inspection regime and a draft report, with a summary of the findings and recommendations, would be released before the end of the year.
Due to south-west community concerns, Powercor has already instigated changes to its inspection regime and pole testing standards.