The Amokabel-Ensto partnership makes its contribution to help prevent bushfires in Australia.
"Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe," wrote a New York Times columnist in January 2020. Fires have claimed human lives, the lives of countless animals, thousands of homes, and millions of acres of land. "Ecological Armageddon" the newspaper called it.
Although fires are business as usual in Australia, the scale of recent fires is not. While climate change creates conditions susceptible to fire, fires caused by powerline are avoidable.
“In 2009 we had a bad bushfire season, and it was determined that 161 of the 173 lives lost in Victoria's Black Saturday wildfires were caused by powerline failures,” says Ian Flatley, Australia-based Director of Groundline Engineering, a company that provides powerline consultancy services in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. “Powerlines account for two to three percent of bushfires, but they contribute 80 to 90 percent of all deaths.”
Flatley says the reason is that bushfires caused by powerlines spread rapidly. “Faults that ignite a wildfire are often caused by strong winds, which spread quickly over a wide area and prevent people from reacting quickly enough.”
In 2009, a Royal Commission of Enquiry undertook an investigation to determine root causes and make recommendations. The verdict: bare wire conductors should be replaced with covered conductors. The scale of the recommendation is huge, and for rural Victoria alone in southeast Australia, that meant replacing 84,000 roadside kilometers of bare wire lines that were 45 years old on average. In 2016, Groundline was granted 291,000 Australian dollars to test covered conductor replacement options.
In early 2015, Flatley found himself in Sweden, talking about wildfires with Fredrik Warme, Technical Director with Amokabel, a Swedish company expert in the manufacture and distribution of cable. Amokabel, working closely with Ensto, had developed covered conductors for use in harsh Nordic winters. Flatley wanted Warme to create something for Australia, as well.
Amokabel designed one conductor for a conventional three-phase system, plus one for a single wire earth return system, a one-phase conductor used at end of lines to distribute to small communities. “Historically, they use steel wire in Australia,” says Warme, “so they can use high tension between the poles. We made a thin, aluminum-clad steel conductor that can be used with high tension. The conductors are fully water-blocked conductor, triple extruded, very robust.”
Flatley saw the advantage in the Amokabel–Ensto partnership: “The massive benefit was that the supplier of the covered conductor was talking to the supplier of the fitting.”
Amokabel’s Warme says not all customers understand the importance of the relationship. "Customers will say 'We tried covered conductors and it doesn’t work.' But that's because the supplier has only sold them a conductor and hasn’t helped them with installation. No training, supervision, and they struggle. To reap the benefit of our covered conductor we want to provide a systems solution, which we have with Ensto.”
“We’ve worked together twenty years now,” says Warme of Ensto. “We’re two separate companies representing one conductor solution. Christer Ohls, Ensto’s Export Sales Manager, and I recently traveled to Oman and Greece. We introduced Ensto in Australia, they introduced us in Africa. Everything functions together, and I think it’s quite rare on the world market for two companies to see the benefit and work so closely together.”
Australia’s situation at the national level, unfortunately, is more complicated than simply bringing in the right technology. Flatley says that technology a utility needs must be approved by an economic regulator. (Two trial areas of several kilometers each have been installed and approved.) “Safety is a state issue but economic approval is federal. Until economic drivers are the same as safety drivers, we’ll remain in this predicament.”
Australia is under increasing pressure to solve the problem. International press coverage of wildfires is one form of pressure. Newspapers have chronicled how tennis players at the Australian Open find themselves unable to play due to wildfire smoke. They have exposed how Australia fires carry dirt to glaciers in New Zealand, and how they are connected to reduced air quality in other countries. Flatley is somewhat optimistic that success stories at the state level can help make change at the federal level.
In February 2020, the Ensto-Amokabel solution received approval for use by the Australian utility, United Energy, in Victoria. "It's met the performance requirements in our specifications and proved itself in field trials," says Jim Tsirikis, Principal Engineer for Distribution with United Energy. "The covered conductor is now in use as business as usual."
He praises the logistical feat performed by Ensto and Amokabel to service a market more than 15,000 kilometers from the Nordics. "I have a lot of praise for these companies, given the tyrannies of distance. They’ve supplied good support and helped us in the transition."
Tsirikis says the transition from bare conductor has been smooth. "There are other insulated conductor technologies like high-voltage aerial bundled cable, however these require specialized cable jointing skills which are not required for covered conductor. This is a big benefit."
Step by step, covered conductors are catching on. Groundline Engineering’s Ian Flatley sees opportunities for the solution well beyond Australia.
"Bushfires are a global problem,” he says. “They’re an issue in Portugal and California. Covered conductor technology is a frontline defense against bushfires. It’s the sensible and responsible thing to do."