Basslink's a lemon, but it's got the nod
by Peter Mac Construction of the controversial Basslink cable, which the Victorian and Tasmanian state governments have proposed to link their two state electricity grids, has been given a conditional approval by a special governmental advisory panel. The proposal has received widespread criticism, because of the likely adverse environmental impacts, the high costs, and the likelihood of the project causing severe corrosion to nearby marine structures and damage to the marine environment. The proposal as recommended by the proponents of the plan, the private firm Basslink Pty Ltd and Hydro Tasmania, involved constructing a series of giant (50-metre) pylons to carry the new cable 62km across Victoria's beautiful Gippsland countryside from the Loy Yang power station in the Hunter Valley to the coastline. From there it would be conducted in a "monopole" marine pipeline across Bass Strait to Tasmania. That was the cheapest option. However, it was also the most environmentally damaging. The governmental advisory panel, which was established to assess the feasibility of the Basslink scheme, recommended putting the line underground, but for the first seven kilometres only. This has been rejected by angry local residents and environmental groups as a form of tokenism which would still leave a hideous scar on the Gippsland environment The panel also recommended that the submarine cable be a bi-pole type, in order to avoid the problems of bi-metallic corrosion in adjacent structures in the waters of Bass Strait. This would involve an estimated extra cost of $100 million, which would be largely borne by the Tasmanian consumers. Moreover, Esso and Duke Energy, operators of Bass strait oil and gas extraction facilities, claim that even this would not avoid accelerated corrosion of the oil and gas platforms and the rupture of the pipeline, because of the presence of the new Basslink cable. Despite these problems, all the governments involved — Victorian, Tasmanian and Commonwealth — appear determined to push ahead with the proposal. The opponents of the scheme have challenged its validity on perfectly legitimate grounds, i.e. damage to the environment and high costs. However, the proposal also raises basic questions about the need for such a huge project. After all, Tasmania has traditionally had no trouble meeting its energy needs, and it is doubtful whether any excess the state generates in future would have a significant effect on the amount of power supplied to the national electricity grid. The answer surely lies in the privatisation of public electricity services. There are three basic aspects to the process of providing such services, i.e. the initial generation, the distribution and the sale of electricity services to consumers. The States are gradually privatising (in the name of competition) these aspects and introducing new unnecessary layers into the process. The pace and extent of privatisation largely depends on the degree of trade union and public opposition. The process of privatisation is introducing many layers of profit, all at extra cost to the consumer. The heavily promoted "benefits" of this arrangement are fictitious. For example, the energy "suppliers" pay the generating authorities for bulk orders of electricity. This electricity may be traded several times before the wholesaler sells it to the retailer who then sells it to the consumer. The only beneficiaries are the private, parasitic traders, advertisers and other marketing-related companies. It was much more efficient, cheaper and reliable when the one publicly owned utility carried out the whole process consumer. As a result consumers pay for totally unnecessary and parasitic overlays in the process of electricity generation, distribution and sales in which the only beneficiaries are the private marketers. The proposed construction of the new Basslink facility involves the private sector directly in the means of distribution. The connection of the Tasmanian system to the national grid by means of the Basslink facility would appear to have more to do with profit generation and private takeover of an essential service, than with ensuring continuity of electricity supply for Tasmania.