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Weatherproofing power lines mainly matter of money

Electricians in the snow in Saaremaa.
Electricians in the snow in Saaremaa. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

Heavy snow and storms left thousands of western Estonian island residents without power for days last week, with in places overgrown and hardly weatherproofed power lines part of the reason. Improvements are stuck behind funding.

The village of Võhma had its own power plant a little over half a century ago when power was not yet being generated in Narva.

Now, the village has its own power station again as the dire straits situation saw efforts to generate power locally using diesel generators in Saaremaa. A generator was set up in Võhma after five days in the dark.

"All of our generators are out there today. They're coming down in some places to go up elsewhere. We don't have enough to set them up everywhere, but we are taking them to where the situation is most critical," said Rasmus Armas, head of grid management for transmission system operator Elektrilevi.

Five days without power had started making people angry.

"Still nothing. Wells and most everything else works on electricity, we've lost access to most things. And it's the same for the entire village. But try to skip paying your bill for a month and see the late fees roll in," Georg, who lives in the village of Panga, said.

Sawmill owner Sven Sevostjanov was less than happy about being without power for the fifth consecutive day, with deadlines looming. "This spells major trouble. Production is halted, customers and workers are waiting. I have ten guys working for me. We lose power as soon the wind starts to blow. This is clearly work outstanding on the part of Elektrilevi. Line corridors need to be maintained, we cannot afford to lose power every time a little something happens," he said.

Only 624 kilometers or a third of Saaremaa medium-voltage lines totaling 1,695 kilometers have been weatherproofed. The major outage was caused by in places overgrown and unsecured power lines in Saaremaa forests, not the unexpected arrival of an early and snowy winter.

"Trees on top of lines and brushwood growing close to the lines from below. While it's fine in summer, snow presses on the lines in winter and that is when shorts happen. We had to cut down a massive amount of underwood here," electrician Armo Tõnisson said.

He added that had the lines been isolated, the storm would have caused just one-third of the number of outages it did.

"Medium-voltage is our priority. We need to keep in mind that not everything can be done at once. We had to start somewhere and opted for low-voltage [lines], and we're now catching up with medium-voltage. One of the lessons from this crisis is that we must weatherproof our medium-voltage infrastructure," said Mihkel Härm, CEO of Elektrilevi.

Two-thirds of Estonian grid weatherproofed

There are two ways to render power lines weatherproof, broadly speaking – either move them underground, which is the most effective but also the most expensive option, or isolate aerial lines against snow, ice and falling branches and debris. There are 63,000 kilometers of power lines in Estonia a third of which have been taken underground and a third has been isolated. In other words, two-thirds of the grid has already been weatherproofed.

"Weatherproofing the lines was a priority even before the Saaremaa snow storm. We have been working on it. Looking a the nationwide figures, Elektrilevi invests around €50 million annually in replacing 1,000 kilometers of lines. We have basically weatherproofed the entire low-voltage grid," Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Riina Sikkut (SDE) said.

Paradoxically, the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa have the most reliable grids in Estonia in terms of how many kilometers of lines have been weatherproofed.

Sikkut said that installing a kilometer of isolated cable costs €50,000. "Replacing 1,000 kilometers annually comes to €50 million. Talking about replacing the lines on 10,000 kilometers would run a bill of half a billion euros. So, the figures go up quickly," the minister remarked.

Other aspects of the grid also require investments, such as desynchronization from the Russian grid or creating access points for small power producers. The TSO requested additional funds for these purposes from the government.

"We asked for €55 million at the start of this year, and I'm glad to report we were given €8 million. While it is considerably less than €55 million, it is a good addition this year," Mihkel Härm said.

Estonia's state budget holds €49 million for Elektrilevi investments for next year.

"The pace today is 1,000 kilometers annually. However, I believe that it is a question of what society expects in the context of looming elections. We could replace 2,000 kilometers [of lines] every year! But that would bring a higher transmission fee," Härm said.

There is no decision in terms of whether the updating of lines should be paid for directly by consumers or indirectly through taxes.

"Any decision in terms of additional necessity and investments would have to be based on analysis. On gut feeling alone, everyone feels that, yes, we need more grid investment, or at least it should be faster. Should such a decision be made, it can be factored in at next year's budget talks," Sikkut suggested.

If by 2011, Estonia had weatherproofed 28,000 kilometers of lines, this had grown to 44,000 by last year.

Elektrilevi puts the price of moving all power lines underground at €2 billion. A combination of underground and isolated aerial lines would cost a much more affordable €1.2 billion.

Reinforcing the grid in Saaremaa and Hiiumaa would cost €97 million and €30 million respectively.

Elektrilevi's recent years' grid investments have been around €43 million annually.

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Editor: Barbara Oja, Marcus Turovski

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