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Maitland and Cessnock have become blackout hot spotsPOLL

POWERLESS: One former Ausgrid employee says the company’s downsizing might be the cause of more frequent blackouts in the area.Ongoing power disruptions in the Maitland area have affected thousands of premises recently.

There have been at least sixblackouts across the Maitland and Cessnock area in the past three weeks, as recently as Wednesday when power failed for about 1400 premises in Cessnock, Bellbird and Wollombi.

The worst on recent record affected 3500 homes in the Thornton, Tenambit and Metford area on December 18 following a fault at the substation.

Morpeth resident and cafe owner, and former Ausgrid employee Andrew Fitzgibbon said he believed ongoing maintenance issues in the Lower Hunter were to blame for the power problems.

He said he worked for the company for 17 years, most recently as a ­procurement officer before he took a redundancy in August.

Mr Fitzgibbon said there had been about five blackouts in Morpeth in little more than a month.

“On one occasion [the power] was down for about 40 minutes. Everything in the café is electric, so we lost 40 minutes of trade,” he said.

“The slightest bit of thunder and the network goes down. It’s really frustrating.”

Seventy Ausgrid employees at its Wallsend operation were made redundant in August as the company cut 553 jobs across the state.

Mr Fitzgibbon said he believed maintenance of the power infrastructure was slipping as the company downsized.

Since moving from Wallsend to Morpeth earlier this year, Mr Fitzgibbon said he had “never seen so many blackouts in all my life”.

“I worked for Ausgrid for 17 years and had to listen to people call it a gold plated network,” he said.

“My frustration now is I wonder whether [blackouts] are starting to become a maintenance issue because there has been a dramatic reduction of staff.”

The Mercury contacted Ausgrid’s media unit for comment on Wednesday, but had not received a response before going to print.

UPDATE: An Ausgrid spokesperson sent the Mercury a statement on Thursday afternoon in response to questions posed on Wednesday. The statement says:

“During December there were four sustained blackouts affecting homes and businesses in different locations around Maitland, including two caused by extreme weather or thunderstorms. Another was caused by a tree coming down on power lines.

“The fourth interruption lasted for approximately 17 minutes when workers were undertaking maintenance on the network.

“There were two blackouts affecting homes and businesses in different parts of the Cessnock area, including one lasting for 55 minutes caused by a fault on equipment which connects underground and overhead power lines.

“Ausgrid carried out almost 400,000 maintenance tasks across its network last financial year, including the Hunter region. These tasks are designed to help prevent blackouts. Maintenance issues were not identified as the cause of these recent outages in the Maitland and Cessnock areas.

“We understand that any interruption can cause inconvenience to our customers, including small business owners like Andrew Fitzgibbon. Mr Fitzgibbon was not employed at Ausgrid as a field worker, overseeing or undertaking maintenance on the network. He was formerly employed in Ausgrid’s back office purchasing operations.

“Ausgrid has hundreds of skilled front line electricity workers based in the Hunter, who work to get power back safely during storms and other interruptions. Their priority is to work as safely and quickly as possible to get power back on for our customers.

“About 45 per cent of all outages on Ausgrid’s network are caused by external factors such as storms and lightning, trees coming down on power lines and third party damage from car accidents and cable strikes.

“During 2014/15 Ausgrid improved its reliability performance, with the average duration of interruptions falling to 71 minutes and the average number reducing to 0.69 per customer, down from 77 minutes and 0.83 interruptions in 2013/14.”

Read what the Mercury has to say here

Recent blackouts in the Maitland/Cessnock areaDec 30: 1400 premises – Cessnock, Bellbird, Wollombi

Dec 29: 1100 premises – Cessnock, Abermain, Abernathy

Dec 27: 1700 premises – East Maitland

Dec 18: 3500 premises – Thornton, Tenambit, Metford

Dec 16: 1700 premises – East Maitland, Morpeth, Raworth

Dec 10: 1100 premises – Aberglasslyn, Bolwarra Heights

Source: Ausgrid

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