One Dead, Thousands Without Power After Victorian Storms

A severe thunderstorm, strong winds and bushfires have combined to wreak havoc across the state.
One Dead, Thousands Without Power After Victorian Storms
Workers are seen inspecting damaged transmission towers at Anakie in Melbourne, Australia on Feb. 14, 2024. (AAP Image/Con Chronis)

A severe thunderstorm in Melbourne, bushfires in the Grampians, and strong winds around Gippsland have left damage across Victoria.

The State Emergency Service fielded 3,500 calls for help between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. Temperatures in some parts of the state exceeded 40 degrees Celcius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), while winds gusted up to 150 kilometres per hour.

A catastrophic fire danger rating was declared for some areas on Tuesday, the first since the deadly Black Summer of 2019-20.

One man—a 50-year-old dairy farmer, believed to have been struck by flying debris while driving a tractor—has died, while 529,000 homes were left without power at the peak of yesterday’s storm.

As of this morning, about 250,000 homes remain without power, according to the Department of Energy and Environment. Progress in restoring electricity is likely to be slow.

“Crews are actively working to restore power to these impacted areas,” it said. “However, given the extent of the widespread damage, it may take days if not weeks to restore electricity to all of those impacted.”

Hundreds of power poles and lines were brought down and six transmission towers near Anakie collapsed, which caused all four units at the Loy Yang A power station to go offline.

The coal-fired plant in the Latrobe Valley in the east of the state generates about 30 percent of Victoria’s power. The station’s owner, AGL, confirmed two units have returned to service as of this morning. The others are expected to progressively come back online in the next 24 hours.

Several wind farms also disconnected at the time, for safety and protection reasons, but are also now back online.

The damaged delivery infrastructure will, however, take a lot longer. Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) Chief Executive Daniel Westerman admitted that the bending of the transmission towers under severe winds was disturbing, but said it was not unheard of.

“Transmission lines folded over and lying on the ground has happened before in the last couple of years,” he said. “Those [sorts of] weather events are becoming more and more severe.”

Blackout Not Due to Inadequate Generation, Energy Minister Says

That was echoed by Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio who wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that: “This has been one of the largest outage events in the state’s history.”

She emphasised the blackout was not caused by insufficient generation capacity.

“If I put it to you this way—if you’ve got a road infrastructure and a road collapses and you have a car full of petrol … and it’s got no road to travel on. It’s got its power, it’s got its supply, but it can’t take it to where you want it to go.”

While she believed Victoria was leading the country in the transition to renewable energy, she felt more work could be done to make the entire system more resilient.

“Power poles don’t just stop at the borders. Transmission lines don’t stop at the borders,” she said. “It does need to be a national effort. I’ve already signalled to ... [federal Energy Minister] Chris Bowen last year about the need for us to ensure that we have more work done.”

Asked if that meant gas should remain part of Victoria’s energy supply, Ms. D’Ambrosio said: “There’s time for those conversations. But that’s not today. We’ve got to prioritise getting people back on supply.”

Victoria banned gas connections for new dwellings from Jan. 1 this year. The state has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Schools Close, Traffic Lights Out

Dozens of schools or early learning centres across the state remained closed today because of fire warnings or power outages.

“Schools are making every effort to provide information to families as quickly as they can and where possible are providing supervision for students where they need it,” an education department spokesman said.

A VicRoads spokeswoman said approximately 550 traffic lights statewide were affected “in some way.”

Hospitality businesses, which were getting ready for an influx of patrons on Valentine’s Day, now have fridges and freezers full of spoiled food, while people living in the town of Pomonal remain sheltering in the Stawell Emergency Relief Centre, uncertain when or if they will be able to return to their homes.

“It’s the 14th of February today and already, just six weeks into 2024, we’ve had extensive flood damage in central and northern Victoria,” Victorian Premier Jacinta Allen said.

“We’ve had the first in the west of the state yesterday and the storm damage across the state. There is no doubt that we are seeing not just a change in the timing of these extreme weather events, but also the extremity of these weather events.”

Federal Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neill, who represents the Melbourne electorate of Hotham, said there were “really important questions to ask” about why so many homes lost power.

“[How is it] possible that a country like Australia can lose power for 500,000 people because of a storm?” she said. “But I do think those questions are for later.”

The network failures pushed the electricity spot price in Victoria and Tasmania to a record $16,600 per megawatt-hour, hundreds of times higher than typical levels.

But Mr. Westerman said the prices were now back to normal.

“It was also at the market price floor yesterday ... so that means consumers are being paid to take that energy. It was a volatile day.”