When Western Australia’s Kimberley region was devastated by once-in-a- century floods, innovative thinking and plenty of planning, teamwork and communication helped Horizon Power keep the lights on for customers when they needed it most. With another cyclone season looming, the regional energy provider explains how climate resilience and lessons learned from the crisis will shape its future disaster relief efforts.

Ex-tropical cyclone Ellie caused havoc in the Western Australian Kimberley region over December 2022-January 2023, with heavy rain and unprecedented flooding causing significant damage to infrastructure, including roads and a bridge – isolating communities in the far north of the state.

The flooding had a disastrous impact on the region and affected access to the Kimberley towns of Derby, Fitzroy Crossing, Camballin, Halls Creek, Looma and Yungngora. For Horizon Power, Western Australia’s only vertically integrated electricity utility, maintaining safe and reliable power for customers became paramount.

Horizon Power Executive General Manager, Operations, Mick Veverka.

“Our response to the Kimberley foods required an enormous, coordinated effort from teams across the business to look after our customers and continue to provide safe and reliable power supply to the communities,” Mick Veverka, Horizon Power’s Executive General Manager, Operations said.

The bridge into Fitzroy Crossing was significantly damaged and main roads into Derby and Halls Creek were cut off, which complicated delivery of adequate fuel supplies – diesel and LNG – to the impacted power stations, from Dampier.

“Our priorities were ensuring the safety of the public and our employees and then getting access to the communities so we could firm up fuel supply and capacity ,” Mr Veverka said. Horizon Power’s emergency and crisis response processes were activated, and personnel and equipment were quickly mobilised to manage critical power system risks.

It was an all-in approach, with teams in Broome supported on the ground by crews and contractors from surrounding regions, independent power provider EDL and organisations including Vision Power, Main Roads WA, the Royal Australian Air Force, local Shires and barge operators, along with Horizon Power’s Control Centre and teams in Perth.

Thinking outside the box

With only ten days of gas in reserve and access to roads cut off for the foreseeable future, a solution was needed so the lights could stay on in flood ravaged Kimberley communities. Multiple options were assessed.

Unable to barge gas in, due to its potentially explosive nature, the team had to pivot and come up with an alternative – quickly. The response was swift, with a plan devised to swap out three power stations – in Derby, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing – from natural gas to diesel. But first, Horizon Power and EDL, who played a significant role in the flood relief effort, had to locate 10 generators and work out how to get them to the flood affected areas.

Generators were brought in from Karratha and Perth, with cabling coming from Melbourne.

Image credit: Western Australia Police.

“To help ease the risk of fuel shortages, we mobilised and connected additional diesel generators, bringing them in by barge, to enable the power stations to transition away from LNG.

“We also ended up barging a crane from Broome and then we needed 70,000 litres of fuel a day to keep these stations running,” Mr Veverka said. Additional fuel was delivered via the Northern Territory to supply Halls Creek, with diesel for Fitzroy and Derby coming from Broome.

“We were thrown many curve balls along the way,” Mr Veverka said.

“It was important that we were dynamic and flexible during the crisis, able to pivot and adapt to an ever-changing situation so that we could keep the lights on. Our ability to do this and continue to provide safe, reliable power to our customer is something I am very proud of.”

As Mr Veverka explained, being able to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis was also due to a lot of planning and extensive disaster management experience. Horizon Power is responsible for delivering energy solutions across the largest geographical catchment of any Australian power provider and this includes areas of the state – such as the Kimberley and Pilbara – which are prone to major weather events, including regular cyclones and flooding.

“Our team was able to draw on many years of experience navigating through cyclones and other extreme weather events. We also have strict processes and procedures in place which are continually refined and conduct regular scenario- based planning exercises and simulations so that we are well equipped for these types of situations.”

“Despite the magnitude of the floods, our customers and employees remained safe and there was little damage to Horizon Power supply assets.”

Horizon Power’s service area is vast – accounting for about a third of the country. It includes the North West Interconnected System (NWIS) in the Pilbara, the connected network covering three interconnected systems in Kununurra, Wyndham and Lake Argyle and 34 microgrids across regional Western Australia, all outside of the South West Interconnected System (SWIS).

These systems are supported by six regional depot locations – Kununurra, Broome, Port Hedland, Karratha, Carnarvon and Esperance – with local operations, stakeholder engagement and customer and community service teams.

“Supporting the needs of our customers in regional and remote Western Australia is at the heart of what we do and many of us work and live in the regions and communities we serve. Having regional based crews and teams who know their areas and can respond quickly in their communities is also crucial in these situations,” Mr Veverka said.

Teamwork at its best

Working as a team is critical in an emergency, Mr Veverka said.

“Responding to an event like this is a logistically challenging exercise and I am extremely proud of how everyone worked together to get the best outcomes for our regional communities at such a terrible time.

“Support during the crisis extended well beyond our teams in the field. We had employees and contractors from around the state willing to put their hand up to support our impacted communities, which was fantastic to see.”

The Kimberley flood relief required a cross-government agency response.

“State, Federal and local agencies worked together on the Kimberley response – and we’re proud to have worked with them to ensure a coordinated response,” Mr Veverka said.

“It really was a collaborative response and showed what could be achieved when we put our heads together and focused on the best outcome for our communities.”

Horizon Power Chief Executive Officer, Stephanie Unwin, echoed Mr Veverka’s sentiment and said the way the team collaborated to support the state’s regional communities, during what was arguably the most extensive disaster management response in the energy provider’s history, was remarkable.

“Through their hard work and innovative thinking, we were able to keep the lights on for Kimberley residents, keep our team members and customers safe and avoid mass evacuations, which is something we can all be very proud of,” Ms Unwin said.

Horizon Power CEO, Stephanie Unwin.

Overcoming challenges

As a regional energy provider, Horizon Power understands and is well equipped for the many challenges that exist when customers and assets are spread out across 2.3 million square kilometres. However, a natural disaster like the Kimberley floods brings with it a raft of unique logistical challenges.

“Being remote makes everything that much harder and when the infrastructure is washed away, it changes everything as well,” Mr Veverka said.

“There was also only one barge a day so to get diesel into the towns we had to compete for a spot on the barge with food.

What’s important to remember is just how critical the power is for all our customers – if we weren’t able to keep the power on, it would have resulted in massive evacuations.”

Meanwhile, with roads inaccessible, vital material for the generators was brought in from Victoria, with the Air Force transporting them from Perth to Derby.

Customer support on the ground

Communication is key and it was paramount during the Kimberley floods. Teams went from house to house assessing damage when the floods first hit with a plan in place to help them get reconnected. Meanwhile, a dedicatedlocal customer support team was on hand to support residents and provided individual hardship assistance for vulnerable customers.

“Our customer team did a fantastic job and what was impactful was being on the ground, connecting with our customers, keeping them up to date with information and supporting them during the crisis,” Ms Unwin said.

“We implemented a comprehensive communications campaign to promote awareness of our relief efforts and liaised with local Shires, Aboriginal corporations and other organisations on the ground to the local residents, including the Indigenous community.”

A flood relief package was implemented, including waiving daily supply chargers, reconnection and new meter fees, with no customers disconnected for non-payment.

Lessons learned

In the context of the current climate crisis, the importance of climate resilience – and having energy networks and systems that can cope with and manage the impacts of climate change – is something which is increasingly a priority for Horizon Power.

“We are responsible for delivering power to some of the most isolated communities in the country – and the vastness of our footprint and the remoteness of our customer base means our networks are particularly susceptible to the impacts of extreme weather events,” Ms Unwin explained.

“In the past five years, we have experienced, and have had to respond to, two one-in-a-hundred-year type weather events – with January’s unprecedented flooding in the Kimberley the most recent example.” The apparent increase in frequency of these types of events makes clear the importance of strengthening Australia’s resilience to their impacts, including in relation to fuel security.

“Our experience in responding to the floods highlighted certain vulnerabilities with respect to fuel security in the region,” Ms Unwin said.

“While our team went above and beyond in responding to this event – and managed to keep the lights on without any significant disruption – moving forward, it is clear to us that we need to move to a model which is better equipped to withstand and respond to these types of weather events such that fuel security is not put at risk.”

As part of this, Horizon Power has commenced a piece of work to further bolster its system resilience, identifying likely constraints and challenges associated with flooding and access issues to regional towns.

“This work has led us to procure a temporary diesel generation fleet and fuel storage to enable the rapid deployment in flood impacted areas – with the temporary generation to be pre-deployed in key strategic locations leading into future wet-seasons so we’re better placed to respond to these extreme events instantaneously,” Ms Unwin said.

Nearly a year after the Kimberley floods and with cyclone season fast approaching, lessons learned from the disaster will assist Horizon Power in the years to come.

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