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Leader of the NSW Nationals Dugald Saunders speaks with a representative of the timber industry at the Coffs Harbour Hardwoods in Glenreagh during his visit to the Clarence Valley last week. Image: contributed

Power pole transition plan sparks concerns

Emma Pritchard

A decision by an electricity network which covers more than 90 percent of the state to phase out hardwood power poles in favour of composite poles made from resin and fibreglass has sparked community concerns amidst allegations the transition will increase power bills, further exacerbating financial pressures during the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, as well as compromise the timber industry.

After receiving approval from the Australian Energy Regulator at the end of April following a detailed examination of their submission, Essential Energy announced they will replace 2200 hardwood power poles per year across bushfire prone areas and install approximately 9000 composite poles each year as new installations or end of life replacements.

In a statement released last week, a spokesperson for Essential Energy said the decision to use composite poles has been years in the making, adding the switch will provide many benefits to customers including a reduction in supply interruptions and shorter outage times due to the composite poles being immune to termite damage and resistant to decay caused by wet weather and natural degradation.

Composite poles are also non-conductive, making them more resilient against lightning strikes, and safer and faster to transport and install, especially in difficult to access locations as a consequence of their light weight.

The spokesperson said composite poles have a longer life expectancy compared to hardwood power poles and they are also fire resistant.

“Reducing the impact of natural disasters on customers is a key driver behind Essential Energy’s business decisions,” they said.

“Impacts to customers during these events can include loss of vital communication links, prolonged power outages, and the cost of replacing power poles that are destroyed.

“As part of Essential Energy’s five-year regulatory cycle, the organisation undertook extensive consultation with customers across NSW, in line with the expectations of our customers and the Australian Energy Regulator. 

“We also consulted with our pole suppliers and Forestry Corporation of NSW across a range of topics including composite poles.

“Among the costing options presented to customers, one included proactively replacing existing timber poles with composite poles in some high-risk bushfire areas, including those that service vital telecommunications infrastructure in often very remote areas.

“Customers across the Essential Energy network area unequivocally and consistently supported this option.”

While the decision has frustrated representatives of the timber industry, Leader of the NSW Nationals Dugald Saunders and Member for Clarence Richie Williamson are calling on the NSW Labor Government to reverse the decision of the state-owned corporation.

Mr Saunders and Mr Williamson joined Deputy Leader of the Nationals Gurmesh Singh and Member for Oxley Michael Kemp during a visit to Coffs Harbour Hardwoods in Glenreagh on June 26 to meet with industry representatives who claimed the decision to phase out hardwood power poles would have major repercussions on their respective businesses including threats to local employment numbers.

Describing the timber industry as being “hard done by” in the aftermath of the recent announcement by Essential Energy, Mr Saunders also voiced his concerns regarding the carbon emissions required to manufacture the composite poles.

“Not only will this untested product be worse for the household budget by adding to power bills, but it will also be worse for the environment by increasing our carbon footprint,” he said.

Mr Williamson and Mr Saunders have also called upon NSW Minister for Energy Penny Sharpe to intervene to prevent a further increase in power prices, and to provide certainty to the timber industry

Last month, the NSW Nationals party room passed a resolution, reaffirming its support of the timber industry.

The agreement endorsed all responsible and sustainable harvesting measures, while opposing transfers of productive state forest to national park without strong scientific justification of improved outcomes.

Mr Williamson said the current reduction in timber supply is a direct result of the Minns Labor Government’s decisions.

“All of the shutdowns we’ve seen over the past six months or so have been caused by this government letting the timber industry down,” he said.

“It needs to do better to stand up for our regional workers and businesses.”

The Essential Energy spokesperson revealed the Australian Energy Regulator’s decision was driven by insufficient quantities of timber poles suitable to meet the needs over the 2024-2029 regulatory period.

“This was also discussed with senior representatives of pole suppliers in August 2023,” they said.

“Essential Energy’s move to introduce more composite poles will cost an average residential customer less than $2 per year over the next five years.

“Composite poles are a proven technology.

“They are a locally manufactured product, and manufacturers are 100 percent locally owned in NSW and Queensland.”

The transition was effective from July 1.