Mayor John Bowler and Kalgoorlie-Boulder Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Bill McKenzie advocated for reliable power supply at an energy forum following three major power outages this year.
Shadow energy minister David Honey and Liberal Member for Mining and Pastoral Neil Thomson had organised the forum to learn about the impact of the outages on households and businesses.
Mr Bowler said he wanted to keep politics out of the issue, as Western Power was an independent utility which would remain standing regardless of which party was in government.
“But the reality is without politics, we probably won’t get an improvement in service. And that’s what we want,” Mr Bowler said.
He said during the past 30 to 40 years, both sides of government were “locked on the teat” and relied on the money independent utilities drew into their coffers.
Mr Bowler told the 25 attendees he had found a press release from 1992, which stated there were 55 Western Power staff members in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
He said if the utility now had anywhere that number of staff, he would be amazed.
Mr Bowler continued by saying Muja Power Station produced more power than needed, which has been sold to mining companies who had overbought in case of an emergency.
“Since then, there have been three tranches of power the Western Power has now double sold. So this line from Muja to Kalgoorlie has always been the most profitable in the Western Power system,” he said.
“So to say that they haven’t got the money to reinvest is wrong.”
Mr Bowler said he had discovered Western Power had not turned on the West Kalgoorlie backup gas turbines until five or six hours after the February blackout began, which was sparked by a bushfire.
He said the utility company knew the day before a bushfire was heading for the main transmission line, and turning on the backup turbines in advance would ensure power was re-established in minutes.
“It was almost a policy of ‘we’ll hope that they can get the main line back, and we won’t have to have the costs of firing up Western Power,” Mr Bowler said.
“Western Power wants to return as much profits as they can back to the State Government of the time, Liberal or Labor, and in order to do so they’ve cut back on the number of staff out there in West Kalgoorlie.”
He explained he had been given various answers as to why the gas turbines were not being turned on, but he hoped the forum would put pressure on the government to find an answer, as the current system was “unacceptable”.
Mr McKenzie said the chamber had been “inundated with calls” from businesses who had lost goods and money.
Mr McKenzie said O’Connor IGA, Woolworths and Coles, along with cafes and restaurants, had to throw out all of their frozen goods for health and safety reasons.
He said when he inquired to Western Power about compensation, they encouraged customers to submit an insurance claim, but the utility company told him the insurance lawyers would likely drag on the claim and it would not be worth it in the end.
Mr McKenzie said his duty as president was to put forward the concerns of members, and of the 1000 business in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, 600 of them were members of the chamber.
He said when the power came back on after each outage, the phones were running hot and they decided to put out a survey and received 77 responses.
Mr McKenzie said responses ranged from “we’re sick of these power outages” to “I don’t want o live in a third-world country anymore”.
However, he noted the main complaint from members was the lack of communication, with Western Power pushing back the estimated restoration time during the outage on May 22.
As the outage struck town, Mr McKenzie said businesses told their staff to go home and come back at 2.30pm, the estimated restoration time, before the notification changed to 4.30pm.
“So they rang them all up and said, ‘don’t bother coming back today, we’ll see you all tomorrow.’ And then the power came back on at 2.30pm,” he said.
Mr McKenzie questioned how businesses were supposed to run without having accurate information at hand.
He also said he had heard a patient had a full bladder while waiting to have a medical procedure, and they were unsure as to whether they should go to the bathroom or not.
“I mean, these things sound funny, but they’re pretty serious. So it’s the communication between Western Power and the businesses that is also causing a huge amount of grief,” Mr McKenzie said.
“Because we simply don’t know what’s going on. And we can’t make business decisions based on rubbish information.”