Powering the region into the future

Last updated 05:00 11/12/2012
 Joshua Bull

GESTURE OF GRATITUDE: Joshua Bull, a student at New Brighton Catholic School, presents Orion chief executive Rob Jamieson with a giant scarf covered in thank you messages from 1600 eastern suburbs residents grateful for Orion's efforts to keep the power on throughout the earthquakes.

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Orion's ability to supply power throughout Canterbury was severely tested by the region's earthquakes but its response has won international acclaim.

In post-quake Christchurch few people take electricity for granted. We've learnt the hard way that without power, almost every aspect of everyday life grinds to a halt.

The severity of the September 4, 2010, and February 22, 2011, earthquakes resulted in significant damage to the city's electricity infrastructure, particularly in the eastern suburbs.

The consequences of that damage could have been a lot worse, however, had it not been for the preparation and planning of lines company Orion, which seismically strengthened its network in the preceding 20 years.

The investment proved its worth after the first major quake in 2010 and again in February, June and December 2011.

Nevertheless, 360km of underground cables were damaged and there were widespread power outages.

"The earthquakes certainly tested our ability to provide a safe and reliable power supply," says Orion chief executive Rob Jamieson. "But our people responded incredibly well and got the power back on again and again, in very difficult circumstances."

Jamieson is grateful to customers for their patience, and to the company's staff and contractors, many of whom had their own difficult situations to deal with. "They willingly gave their very best to provide excellent service to our customers and keep the power on," he says. "It's thanks to their dedication, and the support and guidance of the Orion board, that we were able to respond so well."

In all, 700 electricity sector workers from around New Zealand and Australia spent over 200,000 people hours on network recovery.

By September 2011 more than 95% of all known cable faults had been repaired, a new substation had been built at Rawhiti Domain (to replace the one in Pages Rd which sank two metres into the ground on February 22), and two temporary 66,000 volt overhead lines were installed to feed power from the national grid in Bromley to north-east suburbs.

Jamieson says it will take several years to completely restore the electricity network to its pre-quake state. At the same time, the company is working on longer-term solutions for the city's electricity supply.

"It's important to be smart about fixing what we had - we must also plan for the future," he explains. "That's a challenge when dealing with such big, immediate issues, but looking at longer-term issues is why we were well prepared for the earthquakes, and why so many of our substations survived intact."

He adds: "We need to think about the next 20 to 40 years and ask ourselves: 'what will help us get through the things we could face'. It isn't all about responding to emergency situations - we also need to think about how electricity use is changing. We see Orion as an important facilitator, providing a reliable, secure network that supports innovation and investment by others."

Jamieson says Orion plans to spend $800 million on its network over the next 10 years. "We want to continue to make sound investments in our network for the long term benefit of the community, like the investments we made in seismic strengthening which prevented an extra $65M of damage last year. That work also prevented months of power cuts after the earthquakes, something that was very important for our whole community's social and economic well being."

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Orion's dedication to serving its community gained international recognition in May this year when the company received the prestigious Apex Award from the Utilities Telecommunications Council, an American body which represents criticalinfrastructure operators worldwide. Orion's win was the first time the Apex Award has been granted outside the United States.

Orion won the award because of its mission-critical private radio communications network which withstood all of the Canterbury earthquakes, allowing teams to start to restore power to homes, businesses and critical infrastructure immediately, while maintaining communications in the field.

"This innovative wireless technology was vital to our response and created benefits for the entire community as it shortened the length of power cuts," says Jamieson. "UTC has acknowledged that our earthquake response was of a standard that would, in its view, not normally be achievable and that we are a world leader in this area."

While Orion's quake-related recovery efforts have attracted international attention, closer to home few Christchurch residents would be aware that the company never left its central city site on the corner of Manchester and Armagh streets, despite it being within the cordoned red zone.

"Our office building was badly damaged in the February quake so we relocated to portacoms in the carpark and ran the power network from our backup bunker on the same site. As well as dealing with their challenges at home, our people have experienced the isolation and demolition in the central city. I'm really proud of their commitment and response," says Jamieson.

The central city site has been home to Orion and its predecessors Southpower and the MED since 1903. However, as it now falls within the CBD's planned green frame, a move is inevitable. Next year, all operations currently based in the city will move to new premises in Wairakei Rd, marking the end of an era but the start of a new chapter for a company that continually looks to the future.

Vision Statement

To consistently deliver a safe, secure and cost-effective supply of electricity to our customers.

Past Success

Keeping the lights on as needed by our community.

Future Hope

Provide a strong, secure electricity network to support the Christchurch rebuild, encourage investment in our region and keep our community safe and well.

Greatest Achievement

Restoring power supplies within days rather than monthsafter the Canterbury earthquakes.

- The Press

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