Ergon Energy has almost 160,000km of overhead powerlines across Queensland.
Ergon Energy has almost 160,000km of overhead powerlines across Queensland. Contributed

Above or below? Powerline debate in Debbie's wake

THE reliability of Queensland's energy distribution has been scrutinised by residents in areas affected by Cyclone Debbie after she left about 65,000 homes without power.

Overhead powerlines were targeted and a Whitsunday developer believes they leave communities vulnerable and cost taxpayers unnecessary millions.

As Debbie tore across the Queensland coast at Airlie Beach on March 28, she brought with her winds up to 260kmh and torrential rain over several days.

Ergon Energy workers were on the ground as soon as it was safe to do so and worked relentlessly to restore power as quickly as possible.

Despite best efforts, about 21,500 properties were still without power almost one week after the cyclone hit. By April 9, the number was down to 2600.

Owner of Whitsunday wedding venue Villa Botanica and developer of the Botanica Estate, Janet Hogan, said the lack of power was the "number one" issue for most people.

She blames above ground powerlines as the main cause for the disruption.

"To my knowledge, any areas that had underground power where they weren't affected by above ground power being out were fine," Ms Hogan said.

"To me it's really technology that belongs to last century and not at all appropriate for a place prone to extreme weather conditions.

"A lot of people say 'what about the cost?', I think in the case of Cyclone Debbie it would be interesting for someone to add all the expenses and see how much could've been saved if all the lines were underground."

She explained how the Botanica Estate had no power disruptions during the cyclone, which she believed was because they had paid an extra 10% when building to have all lines run underground.

As of 2016, Ergon Energy had 1million power poles carrying overhead powerlines across 159,000km. Underground power cables stretched only 9200km.

In a five year plan released last year, out of a capital investment allowance of $3billion, almost one-third was allocated to maintaining the network and replacing assets "when required".

A spokesperson said as part of the company's Cyclone Area Reliability Enhancements program, it had been "undergrounding" sections of its high voltage network in coastal communities since 2001, including Mackay.

The program primarily focuses on key community infrastructure, including hospitals, emergency services, community buildings, schools, shopping centres and other areas deemed "useful".

"There are many areas in various Whitsunday communities where high voltage powerlines have been placed underground," the spokesperson said

"As well as many places in Mackay and even north to smaller communities such Bowen and the Burdekin."

They said while you could never storm proof or cyclone proof a network, falling trees and debris from Debbie had "proven to be the nemesis of this system".

However, this only served to bolster Ms Hogan's arguments to replace overhead powerlines as soon as possible.

She said as workers had been restoring energy, they had only been reinstating what was already there.

"It was the same system and it's going to collapse again under the next heavy storm.

"Factor in the very real likelihood that with global warming cyclones will only become more frequent, there's going to be a very strong argument to make sure all of our infrastructure is cyclone proof."