ALAN TITCHALL reviews an obstacle to national grid development that the electricity pioneers of the last century did not foresee.
The country originally built the national grid back in the days when such projects were constructed for the common good, and if a power pylon had to go up in someone’s backyard, then it was for the progress of the nation.
No one argued with that objective at the time, and much of the land where power pylons were placed, including the suburbs of Penrose and Onehunga in Auckland, was either marginal rural or urban wasteland.
Over the past 70 years, prime farmland and whole business communities have been permitted to be developed and built under the shadow of the grid on the ‘understanding’ the grid had right of way above their heads.
This ‘understanding’ with landowners had worn out its welcome by the time Auckland city woke up in the dark in the late 1990s and the country realised it would have to spend around $3 billion on grid upgrades.
By this time the career workers of the old NZ Electricity Department, the ones who did the grid maintenance and kept an amenable relation with the landowners, had long gone; replaced with the new age of privatisation and subcontracting with the belief it is a cheaper way of doing business, and ‘cheap’ has become the country’s mission statement.
However, you only need to forget to shut a farmer’s paddock gate once during a grid maintenance visit to wear out your welcome.
While the national grid operator’s right to maintain its infrastructure is legislated, its actual ability to gain timely access to these assets is now dependent on the goodwill of the landowner.
Suffice to add, that when the massive, 186 kilometre-long, 400kV transmission line upgrade from South Waikato to Auckland was launched in 2007 it ran into almost battlefield opposition from land owners who had paid huge monies for their assets and had, understandably, no appreciation of the national good, or respect for contractors who left paddock gates open.
This project cost about $76 million more than first expected, coming in at about $900 million, partly because Transpower paid more than expected to get access to farm land.
When the second stage of that grid upgrade was commissioned, Transpower chief Patrick Strange (who, ironically, is also a farmer) admitted that the most difficult challenge of the project was nothing to do with engineering, but pacifying the private landowners and communities involved.
The overhead transmission lines and huge tower construction affected some 318 properties, with a further 25 affected by underground cable routes.
“The most important lesson was respecting communities, and I personally thank all the landowners. Without their cooperation, we couldn’t have built such an important piece of New Zealand infrastructure.”
Transpower says for all new lines it now secures full easements through commercial negotiations with each landowner. This involves compensation for easements that are consistent with the principles of the Public Works Act.
“On the major North Island Grid Upgrade line, we bought 99 properties in order to secure some of these easements, principally in 2006 and 2007. It is pleasing to note that almost all of these properties are now sold.”
For the new Wairakei to Whakamaru Replacement Line project, due to be completed next autumn, it negotiated “easements in good faith with all 28 landowners without needing to buy any properties”.
In its 2012/2013 annual report Transpower also noted: “Most councils are now well advanced in implementing the new legislative requirement to protect our transmission lines against incompatible development.
“This provides an effective tool to eliminate new under-build (developments directly under transmission lines), which has compromised many of our lines in urban areas.”
An achievement during the upgrade so far and worth noting is the reported zero permanent injuries.
Pretty good, considering the appalling record this country has for workplace safety and the sheer number of people (up to 2000) working on these projects, including local subcontractors from communities up and down the line. “Done through leadership, not regulation,” Patrick adds.
I think he can also credit himself for leading the grid upgrade in the face of much public and political misunderstanding.
As he said at the opening of the second stage securing supply into Auckland and Northland: “All three projects will produce a stronger grid and I will get some sleep at night.”
After six years at the helm of Transpower, Patrick is leaving the agency early next year and will be replaced by Alison Andrew as the new chief executive.
In the meantime, sleep well old boy, you deserve it.