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Darwin's underground power project restarts but could take 30 years to finish

By Adam Steer, Jo Laverty and Emily Smith, Tuesday March 19, 2019 - 09:50 EDT
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Falling trees and debris saw almost 30,000 Darwin residents lose power during Cyclone Marcus. - ABC

Waiting out a cyclone with the lights on may still be 30 years away for many Darwin residents, despite a decades-old program designed to protect its power supply being restarted.

A year after Cyclone Marcus, which left almost 30,000 residents without power, the NT Government has gone back to a plan put on ice seven years ago — announcing it would move the power supply of nine Darwin schools underground within two years.

This underground supply is far less likely to be cut in a cyclone, given its minimal exposure to falling trees and debris compared to above-ground poles and wires.

The project will cost $3 million of the $10 million it has allocated each year for moving its power supply underground, and is forecast to be completed in 2021.

Yet it has been estimated that sending the rest of the city's power supply underground will cost about $300 million — meaning at this rate it will take more than 30 years before the project is completed.

The remaining $7 million of this year's spend is yet to be allocated, despite the NT Government having more than a year to mull it over.

If consecutive governments had stuck to the schedule set out for undergrounding power more than a decade ago, the project would be more than halfway completed by now.

From $80m over 20 years to $300m over 30 years

In the early 2000s, the Labor government of the day promised to spend $80 million over 20 years moving its power supply underground.

While that saw Nightcliff, Rapid Creek and Millner shifted — valued at $57 million — .

At the time, , and they just didn't have the funds.

But following last year's Cyclone Marcus — the worst storm to hit the Territory since the deadly Cyclone Tracy, leaving thousands of residents without power for weeks — Treasurer Nicole Manison said they would restart the work.

She said the total cost would be around $290 million, but on Monday indicated it could be as much as $300m.

"It will take a bit of time if it is done at that rate of $10 million a year, that's for sure," she conceded.

It is believed the increased cost and time forecasts are because the Government now has a better understanding of the project's complexities, particularly because some suburbs have a large amount of shallow rock.

It was also pointed out that all infrastructure project costs have increased since the early 2000s.

While all new developments since the 1970s have been required to have underground power, including Palmerston and newer Darwin suburbs, 13 remain without it.

These include Stuart Park, The Gardens, Parap, Fannie Bay, Larrakeyah, Nakara, Wagaman, Jingili, Alawa, The Narrows, Moil, Coconut Grove and Ludmilla.

'Getting the most resilience built into the system'

Speaking to ABC Radio this morning, Ms Mansion said , it was important to prioritise undergrounding projects that would give them the best bang for their buck.

"We've decided to prioritise undergrounding power to the schools given they are critical community infrastructure," she said.

"We want to maximise getting the most resilience built into the system first and foremost, and also look at the timing of where you can get the most bang for your buck.

"And we felt that getting to the schools first was a good way to go about it."

Asked if those schools would then become support centres in the event of the cyclone, she said the priority would be to get people back into a normal routine and going to school as quickly as possible.

She was also asked if the Government would next prioritise areas with a lot of big trees, which may be more susceptible to losing power during a storm.

But she said decisions around which areas to underground next would depend on a range of other factors, including the number of outages an area had, whether it had low- or high-voltage lines, and how difficult it was to do the work due to what was under the ground already.

Ms Manison has been contacted for further comment.


© ABC 2019

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