How’s the Powerline Bushfire Safety Program Reducing Risks from High Voltage Powerlines?

Following the devastating bushfires of Black Saturday in 2009, the Victorian Government established the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission to consider how bushfires can be better prevented and managed in the future. The Commission observed that powerlines and electricity infrastructure caused many of the major bushfires in 2009 (and contributed to 159 of the 173 bushfire-related deaths), as well as earlier major bushfires.

In response to the Commission’s report and recommendations, the Government established the Powerline Bushfire Safety Program (PBSP) to manage a $750 million program of works delivering improvements to reduce the risk of Victorian powerlines causing catastrophic bushfires in the future. One third of this program ($250 million) was funded by the Victorian Government. Electricity distribution businesses are putting roughly another $500 million worth of works into the PBSP, principally focused on reducing the risk of bushfires ignited by faults on high voltage (>1,000 volts) distribution lines.

Three elements of the High Voltage Network Assets Program

Three elements of the PBSP’s Network Assets Program – accounting for almost $700 million of the PBSP total – address bushfire risk associated with high voltage powerlines, a key source of bushfires.

The 3 elements are:

  1. Dedicating a large portion of the Government’s $200 million Powerline Replacement Fund (PRF) to replacing bare wire, high voltage overhead powerlines with buried cable or insulated overhead line
  2. Dedicating about $60 million of the distribution businesses’ works to installing Automatic Circuit Reclosers (ACRs) on 11kV, single-wire earth return (SWER) lines
  3. Targeting the rest of the distribution businesses’ network assets  by installing enhanced fault detection and suppression technology on 22kV, 3-wire lines

Replacing Bare Wire High Voltage Powerlines

A portion of the Powerline Replacement Fund (PRF) is allocated to replacing low voltage service, bare-wire private overhead electric lines (POELs) that present a significant risk of bushfires. Most of the Fund, however, is being used to replace high voltage (ie. either 11kV or 22kV), bare wire powerlines with either buried underground cable or insulated overhead cable. Over the course of the program, nearly 600 kilometres of dangerous overhead cable will have been replaced with buried or insulated lines that pose a much-reduced risk of bushfire ignitions (a 99% reduction in the case of buried lines for example).

Single wire

11kV Single Wire, Earth Return Powerlines

One aspect of the Victorian Government’s response to the Commission’s report and recommendations is the installation of next generation, protection devices – specifically Automatic Circuit Reclosers (ACRs) – to instantaneously detect and turn off power at a fault on high fire risk days on 11kV single wire, earth return (SWER) powerlines. SWER powerlines serve primarily rural and regional areas of Victoria.

ACRs were required to be installed to replace Oil Circuit Reclosers (OCRs); OCRs must be set manually; ACRs on the other hand allow enhanced reclose settings to be made remotely to respond to changing bushfire risk conditions. CSIRO estimates that ACRs reduce the likelihood of ignition on bare-wire SWER lines by nearly half (45.7%) under worst case bushfire risk conditions.

Two distribution businesses – AusNet Services and Powercor – are implementing this program. AusNet has installed 525 ACRs across its SWER powerline network, while Powercor is well advanced in its work to install nearly 1,100 ACRs across its SWER network.

A photograph of three high powerlines

22kV Three Wire Powerlines

The majority of the $500 million high voltage powerline program of works is focused on reducing bushfire risk from over 30,000 kilometres of 22kV, 3 wire high voltage powerlines – more than half the system in Victoria. These powerlines are being protected pursuant to 2016 changes to the law that require installation of enhanced powerline fault detection and suppression capabilities (“required capacity”). These capabilities are being delivered through the installation of Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiters (REFCLs) at 45 zone substations (ZSS) in hazardous bushfire risk areas around the State.

What are REFCLs

REFCLs are a class of technology used primarily for supply reliability outside of Australia. They’re being installed in Victoria as a world-first use of this technology to lower the risk of powerline faults starting bushfires. Testing of REFCLs at the Frankston South and Kilmore South ZSSs, simulating worst-case bushfire conditions, demonstrated REFCLs’ potential to prevent faults on 22kV powerlines from starting bushfires. The test results assisted the Victorian Government and electrical distribution businesses to develop a regulated introduction of REFCLs onto the Victorian network through amendments to the Electricity Safety (Bushfire Mitigation) Regulations 2013. The amendments commenced on 1 May 2016.

REFCL Testing Proves Potential Bushfire Safety Benefits

Frankston South Trials

In 2014, trials were conducted on a live electricity distribution network and conclusively demonstrated that REFCLS are able to reduce current almost instantaneously on wire-to-ground faults, while maintaining the power on for un-faulted phases.  Power was restored immediately when the fault cleared. These tests established considerable potential to reduce the risk of starting a fire and customer supply interruptions.

The results of the Frankston South REFCL trials are detailed in a report that contains test results, observations, analysis, commentary and interpretation.

Due to the report's large file size, the PDF version of the REFCL Report has been separated into sections:

Chapter 1-3 - Executive Summary, The Project, Wire on the Ground
Chapter 4 - Findings
Chapter 5-6 - Optimum settings & implementation challenges
Chapter 7 - Trial design
Chapter 8 - Appendices

Kilmore South Trials

The Kilmore South REFCL trials took place through 2015 and compared the effectiveness of a range of REFCL designs to reduce the bushfire threat from faults on 22 kV powerlines. These world-first trials confirmed and refined the performance standard to respond to network faults and revealed the optimal REFCL technology configuration for the Victorian network.

Download Word Version of the Report:
(Due to the report's large file size, the Word version of the REFCL Kilmore Final Report has been separated into sections.)

Legislation is passed in 2016 based on REFCL’s potential to improve bushfire safety

On 1 May 2016, the Victorian Government introduced legislation mandating that 3 electricity distribution businesses – AusNet Services, Powercor and Jemena – must deploy the enhanced fault detection and suppression capabilities that REFCLs can provide at 45 ZSSs located in hazardous bushfire risk areas. REFCLs are being installed in 3 phases (or “tranches”), with roughly one-third of the 45 substations operational by 30 April 2019, roughly another third by 30 April 2021, and the final third in operation by 30 April 2023. When this program is complete, REFCLs are expected to provide at least a 60% reduction in risk on over 30,000 km of multi-wire, high-voltage powerlines (or more than half the State’s high-voltage distribution lines).

A photograph of three high powerlines

How do REFCLs work?

A REFCL operates on “polyphase” (3-wire), 22 kilovolt (kV) powerlines.  REFCLs can detect single phase-to-earth faults, that is when one of the 3 wires on a powerline comes in contact with the ground or with an object connected to the ground, such as a tree branch.  The REFCL can detect the fault and reduce the voltage on the faulted phase to a very low level within 2 seconds or less. This is how a REFCL substantially reduces the likelihood of a fire starting.

Unlike standard powerline technology, REFCLs allow the electricity distribution system to continue operating for a short time rather than cutting power off altogether when a fault is detected. This allows for unnecessary downstream power outages to be avoided if the fault is temporary.  If the fault persists, the REFCL then shuts down the power to the affected lines. But this aspect of a REFCL’s operation also means that the 2, non-faulted wires are receiving significantly more voltage than normal during these brief, over-voltage conditions. Such over-voltages can have a negative effect on a High Voltage Customers (HVC’s) electrical equipment and installations if not properly assessed and modified where necessary.

REFCLs’ Impact on High Voltage Customers

High voltage customers (HV Customers or HVCs) are businesses that require large amounts of electricity to operate and that are connected directly to the high voltage distribution network. There are over 90 of these sites around Victoria.

During REFCL operations, the voltage on the non-faulted high voltage wires nearly doubles – up to 24.2kV – for brief periods, usually a minute or less. There is a substantial risk that such over-voltages may cause an HVC’s electrical equipment to fail unless it takes action to ensure that equipment can operate in REFCL-related over-voltage conditions. If an HVC’s electrical equipment failed in such conditions, it could endanger employees, lead to business interruptions, and even result in bushfire-causing faults on the HVC’s network or elsewhere on the distribution company’s network.

What do HVCs need to do?

The first thing an HVC needs to do is to assess its electrical equipment to determine if it’s REFCL ready (that is, capable of operating safely and reliably during REFCL-related over-voltages). HV Customers should start this process as soon as possible.

What are an HV Customer’s options if its equipment isn’t REFCL ready?

HVCs have 3 possible options for modifying their electrical assets or operations to avoid or reduce the risk of damage to their equipment and sub-networks from REFCL-related over-voltages:

  • they can “harden” their existing assets, assessing their equipment and replacing any that is not capable of operating during REFCL-related over-voltages with equipment rated to operate safely at such voltages (ie. up to 24.2kV for less than 1 minute except when per phase stress testing is underway, when over-voltages may occur for up to 10 minutes)
  • HVCs can “isolate” their assets from the REFCL-controlled distributor’s supply network by installing isolating transformers that isolate the higher voltages during REFCL operation from the HVC’s equipment and powerlines,or
  • depending on the size of an HVC’s electrical load, an HVC can “convert” its power supply to low voltage service (<1,000 volts), meaning the HVC ceases taking electricity directly from the electricity distributor’s high-voltage line and instead takes power that has been stepped-down by the distributor’s transformer.

HVCs considering converting to a low voltage service need to consider the impact of different rates in the distributor’s electricity tariff, as well as the capital costs of connecting to the distributor’s low voltage network.

How much will it cost an HVC to become REFCL-ready?

Without undertaking a REFCL impact assessment, it’s impossible to estimate an HV Customer’s costs to become REFCL ready. The cost of becoming REFCL ready depends on the solution chosen – which is a business decision – as well as the type, age, condition, etc of an HV Customer’s electrical assets. However, some broad estimates can be made based on the information we’ve gleaned from various sources; from this data, it appears:

  • converting to low voltage service could cost around $80,000
  • the cost of “isolating” an HVC’s equipment form the high voltage distribution network would likely range from $500,000 to over $1,000,000 (for labour and materials associated with each isolating transformer); the HVC’s energy needs determine if more than one isolating transformer needs to be installed
  • for a “hardening” solution, it‘s impossible to estimate the range of costs as these vary widely from site to site and depends on the type, age, condition, etc of an HVC’s electrical assets, as well as its access to equipment suppliers. However, the PBSP has seen hardening solutions proposed for as little as $30,000 for a site, while others have ranged up to $2 million or more.

Why do HVCs have to pay for REFCL readiness work?

Amendments to Victoria’s Electricity Distribution Code in August 2018 make it clear that HVCs bear full responsibility for ensuring their electrical assets are REFCL-ready. This ruling also means that the costs cannot be passed onto consumers by electricity distributors providing this work on behalf of their HVCs – which they were authorised to do for HVCs served by a tranche one (30 April 2019 deadline) substation.

The Governments High Voltage Customer assistance Program (HCAP) will help certain Victorian businesses make their electrical equipment REFCL ready

The Victorian Government recognises that HVCs may incur a substantial cost to become REFCL ready. Commercial enterprises that are subject to the pressures of a competitive market for their goods and services may find it particularly difficult to absorb the costs of making their electrical assets REFCL-ready. To relieve some of the burden on such HV Customers, the Government has committed $10 million to a High Voltage Customer Assistance Program (HCAP) designed to assist HVCs with part of the costs associated with the REFCL works. Depending on the solution selected by the HV Customer and such things as the type, age, condition, etc of its electrical assets, grants from the HCAP will be capped and may cover up to 50% of an HVC’s REFCL-readiness costs.

What is the HCAP?

The HCAP will provide financial assistance to private sector HVCs in the form of grants. These funds will be capped and contribute up to 50% towards the actual cost of works for an HVC’s chosen solution. The capped amount will be determined by how many HVCs successfully apply for funding but is expected to be in the range of $220,000 to $250,000 per customer site (some HVCs operate more than one site or have more than one connection to the DB’s high-voltage supply network).

View the Introduction of REFCLs - Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiters brochure (PDF, 738 KB)

What costs will the HCAP cover?

The HCAP will only fund an HV Customer’s actual costs (material, labour, etc) of implementing its REFCL-ready solution – this includes procurement of equipment, system design, and compliance works.

Grants from the HCAP will not cover any costs associated with the following:

  • Initial assessment and audit of electrical equipment to determine if it is REFCL ready
  • Any costs associated with determining what the REFCL-ready solution will be (other than costs related to solution design)
  • Any other preparation works not directly related to the implementation of the REFCL-ready solution
  • Consultancy fees associated with the foregoing activities
  • The purchase of land
  • Routine or ongoing maintenance activities
  • Recurrent operating costs, for example rent and utility costs, and/or activities establishing expectations of ongoing funding
  • Any downtime or loss of production time resulting from the testing or implementation of the REFCL-ready solution, or
  • Any asset upgrades or network changes not required for REFCL-readiness.

Who’s eligible for funding assistance from the HCAP?

An HVC that is eligible for a grant from the Government’s HCAP scheme is:

  • a sole trader, private or publicly listed company (ie. not Government owned) or trust
  • that operates a business directly connected to high voltage powerlines from a substation required to be equipped with a REFCL by the deadlines for tranche 2 (30 April 2021 deadline) or tranche 3 (30 April 2023 deadline)

An HVC is ineligible for a grant from the HCAP scheme if it is:

  • a Commonwealth, state or local government directly-owned entity, or
  • an electricity distribution business, or
  • an otherwise eligible HVC that is served by a substation required to be equipped with a REFCL by 30 April 2019 (ie, tranche one).

Swedish neutral power

What’s the process for HVCs to apply for an HCAP Grant?

The Department will invite those HVCs deemed eligible for HCAP funding to apply for funding online via the State’s online portal.

Grant applications must be made by 11:59pm on Wednesday, 20 February 2019.

If an HVC fails to submit a substantially complete grant application by that date, it will not be able to get an HCAP grant.

As a first step, an HVC will need to undertake a REFCL impact assessment to determine if its electrical equipment is REFCL ready.  If it’s not ready, the HV Customer will need to determine the most appropriate solution from among low voltage conversion, hardening or isolation.

Second, the HVC needs to review its solution options with the electricity distribution company serving the HVC’s site(s). It’s important to note that an HVC may have more than one site in Victoria connected to the 22kV distribution network and may be receiving service from more than one distributor. Each site needs to be made REFCL-ready.

Once an HVC has determined its preferred solution and obtained a quote (or estimate), and reviewed it with the serving distribution company, it should complete the application form, provide the required supporting documentation and reports and submit them – electronically only (no hard copies) – to DELWP’s PBSP team by the due date. Applications are made via an online portal only and those eligible parties will be sent the link as part of their application pack.

HVCs should make sure to complete all information and provide all supporting documents, as failure to do so will delay assessment and puts the HVC at risk of missing out on HCAP funds.  If you save an application as draft, to easily access it later use the following link, https://delwp1.force.com.  

When do HCAP applications need to be submitted?

All applications must be submitted electronically through DELWP’s online portal and must be received by 11:59pm, Wednesday, 20 February 2019.

This date was selected to allow enough time after the HCAP’s release for HVCs to assess their network and arrive at a recommended solution, and to allow for the funds to be released as early as possible to help with HVCs’ cost of REFCL-ready works. An HVC may apply for HCAP funding any time before 20 February 2019 but will not receive a funding agreement before 21 February 2019.

The funding agreement will provide a link to the terms and conditions governing the grant, should the HVC accept the offered agreement. An HVC thus will not receive any HCAP funds until the signed funding agreement has been returned to the Department.

Can HVCs still apply if they miss the application deadline?

All applications must be submitted to DELWP by the due date to enable DELWP’s PBSP team to determine funding and capped amounts. So long as an application is substantially complete, the HVC will be deemed to have applied by the deadline. Applications lodged after 11:59pm, 20 February 2019, will not be accepted.

How and when will HVCs know if their applications are successful?

DELWP’s PBSP will issue funding agreements to all successful tranche 2 and tranche 3 HCAP applicants, which will indicate the funding amount each HVC is entitled to receive. The funding agreements set forth the grant’s terms and conditions, which the HVC must agree to as a condition of receiving HCAP funding.

Funding agreements will not be issued before 21 February 2019 and the initial instalment of grant funds will be distributed shortly after DELWP’s PBSP team receives the HVC’s signed funding agreement.

How much funding will the HCAP provide; how will HCAP funding be distributed?

HCAP grants will contribute up to 50% towards the total cost of the actual works associated with implementing an HVC’s preferred solution, capped at a certain amount. The capped amount will not be known until DELWP has received and processed all HCAP applications. However, current analysis indicates that assistance may range from $220,000 to $250,000.

Grants from the HCAP will be released in 2 instalments. The first instalment, issued shortly after DELWP’s receipt of the HVC’s signed funding agreement, will be set at 30% of the approved funding level. The second instalment of HCAP funding – up to 70% of the approved funding level, will be issued within 30 days of DELWP’s receipt of notice of the HVC’s satisfactory completion of REFCL-readiness works. Depending on the actual cost of works, the second instalment may actually be less than 70% of the original, approved funding level.

Any other conditions on HCAP grants will be spelled out in the funding agreement.

Example of how HCAP grants are calculated and distributed

HVC Alpha has applied for HCAP funding for a hardening solution that Alpha estimates will cost $80,000 ± 30% (ie., $56,000 to $104,000). The calculated maximum HCAP support for Alpha will be based on the upper estimated amount, ie. $104,000. HVC A will be offered HCAP funding of up to $52,000 to implement its solution (50% of $104,000). The first instalment of HCAP funding (30% of the approved funding level – or $15,600) will be based on this estimate. The second instalment (70% of $52,000) ordinarily would be $36,400.

However, assume the actual total cost of all works to harden Alpha’s electrical assets turns out to have been $86,000 ($18,000 less than the upper estimate that Alpha’s approved funding level was calculated on). The final grant instalment paid to Alpha will be based on 50% of Alpha’s actual – not estimated – cost of REFCL-ready works, in this case $43,000 (50% of $86,000). The final release of funds from the HCAP will be $27,400 ($43,000 - $15,600) rather than the $36,400 that would have been due based on the original estimated cost ($52,000 - $15,600).

What supporting documents do HVCs need to provide to get their final payment?

Evidence of payments/fixed price quotes for the actual costs directly related to REFCL-readiness works, as well as confirmation from the DB and/or ESV that the HVC’s solution has been satisfactorily implemented, must be provided before DELWP’s PBSP team will process an HVC’s second and final instalment of HCAP funding.

Will HCAP funding be conditional?

The first 30% instalment of HCAP funding will not be conditional but the 70% balance payment may be adjusted. First, the final instalment will be based on the HVC’s actual cost of REFCL-ready works; if the actual cost is less than the estimated cost, the HVC will receive a smaller sum based on the lower, actual cost. Second, if the HVC fails to complete its works by the date the electricity distributor has scheduled its zone substation to have an operational REFCL in place, the final 70% payment may be reduced. An HVC’s failure to meet the distributor’s REFCL schedule may attract a penalty in the form of a percentage reduction to the HVC’s final HCAP instalment. The percentage reduction will increase with the passage of time and could conceivably result in the final instalment being reduced to zero if the HVC fails to complete its works by the legislated tranche deadline.

The key point is that HVCs are incentivised to expeditiously complete their REFCL-readiness works in order to facilitate the roll-out of zone substations equipped with REFCLs capable of meeting the legislated enhanced fault detection and suppression capabilities before the tranche 2 and tranche 3 deadlines.

What are other potential consequences of an HVC not finishing its works to the distributor’s REFCL schedule?

As the agency responsible for powerline safety, Energy Safe Victoria has the authority to direct an electricity distributor to isolate or even disconnect an HVC from its high voltage distribution network. ESV may do this if the HV Customer’s electrical assets present an unacceptable risk of harm to the HVC’s employees or others, or of damage to the distribution supply network or other electricity customers. Such action may be taken regardless of whether it occurs on a Code Red or Total Fire Ban day.

When will HCAP funds be provided?

The HCAP will be implemented in a 2-milestone payment grant scheme. The first payment (representing 30% of an HVC’s approved HCAP amount) will be provided shortly after DELWP receives the HVC’s signature to the funding agreement (recall that funding agreements will not be issued before 21 February 2019). The second payment (which will represent the remaining 70% of your approved HCAP amount) will be provided to the HVC shortly after DELWP receives confirmation that the HVC’s chosen solution has been successfully implemented and received evidence of the actual cost to implement the solution. The amount of the final grant instalment will be based on an HVC’s actual costs incurred and may also be reduced if the HVC fails to complete its works to the distribution business’s schedule of works to make its zone substations capable of meeting the legislated enhanced fault detection and suppression standards.

Other assistance for HVCs

DELWP’s PBSP team is working with electricity distribution companies, ESV and other agencies, and technical consultants in order to find other ways to assist HVCs meet the challenge of operating in REFCL-related over-voltage conditions. An HVC’s electricity distributor will work with it – or its consultant – to help determine which solution is the most appropriate based on both the distributor’s network needs and the HV Customer’s electrical assets, business needs, risk profile and cost capacity. ESV can advise what actions an HVC must take in order to obtain any necessary regulatory approvals. In addition, DELWP’s PBSP team can try to facilitate an HVC’s communications with these bodies. To facilitate communication with DELWP, the PBSP team has established a dedicated e-mailbox for HVCs’ questions at hcap@delwp.vic.gov.au.