Construction work is currently underway to connect reticulated natural gas to the Victorian town of Huntly, north of Bendigo. The project is part of the Victorian Government’s Energy for the Regions program and is being carried out by SP AusNet.

Construction  of the connection began in October 2013 and approximately 580 Huntly residents and businesses will have the choice of a cost effective, convenient and environmentally friendly energy supply by winter 2014.

SP AusNet’s Program Manager, Geoff Thorn, said the company is committed to delivering the underground gas network on time, safely and with minimal disruption to locals.

“I’m pleased to announce that work has started to supply natural gas to Huntly,” Mr Thorn announced in October 2013 as construction began.

“Crews are preparing to begin extending the underground pipeline from Bendigo along the Midland Highway to Huntly. Once we reach Huntly, we’ll then lay more than 13 kilometres of pipeline to homes and businesses throughout the town.

“During this construction phase, we’re committed to minimising any disruptions to residents and safely delivering natural gas to their properties,” he said.

“Importantly, SP AusNet thanks the State Government for its support in bringing natural gas to Huntly through the Energy for the Regions program and we look forward to connecting more Victorians to our natural gas network.”

By late 2013, the supply main in Huntly was nearly complete, with more than 95 per cent direct drilled. On a technical level, the project is running smoothly and SP AusNet continues to use horizontal directional drilling (HDD), because it “allows us to go under or around nearly every obstacle we encounter.” These obstacles range from  other utility services to tree roots and rivers or creeks. Emmett Drilling has been engaged as the HDD contractor for the works.

Open trenching is used where drilling is not possible or not the best option, such as when they encounter rock or are close to other services that need consideration. While the rock can be drilled through, it makes maintenance of the pipe at a later date almost impossible. Instead, the rock encountered is hammered into small pieces, removed and replaced with a cleaner fill of more finely crushed rock.

All pipe laid is recorded on detailed maps which are filed in SP AusNet’s asset management system and also made available to the Dial Before You Dig service.

Engaging the community

The key lesson SP AusNet has learnt from the previous gas extension program is the importance of engaging with the community – early and often.  “This can overcome many of the concerns the community and lead to a greater take-up of gas. Tell everyone that needs to know what you are doing as soon as you can. That leaves plenty of time for negotiation and contingency plans if needed.”

The Energy for the Regions program brings natural gas to an area of the state that has never had it and history shows these towns tend to become more prosperous over time after gas is available.

As a result, it is an opportunity for the energy provider to simultaneously engage with older members of the community and young families about a common issue.

SP AusNet’s stakeholder engagement strategy is multi-faceted. Discussing their strategy in Huntly, they explained, “We have written to all residents advising them of our project. We have also erected large signs at each end of town advising what we are doing. In November, we held a community forum to provide detailed project information and answer specific question from the attendees. We used posters in the local stores and post office to advertise this event. We maintain our website and have a dedicated phone number and email address to manage enquiries.

“We also have several contacts within the local council (City of Greater Bendigo) that we keep up to date. That way if residents make enquiries to council, the council is across the project. As part of the planning approval stage we also engaged very closely with the local VicRoads office and Dja Dja Wurrung Aboriginal clan regarding Cultural Heritage issues.”

Ensuring the project has a minimal impact on the environment is another challenge, but also a great positive for the community as well. SP AusNet has engaged an ecological adviser and a Cultural Heritage advisor to ensure that environmental issues on a state and federal level have been considered and all necessary permits have been sought. In Huntly, they have an agreed (with DEPI) Net Gain offset plan. Any no-go zones along the route where the pipes are to be laid have been identified.

Importantly, the HDD technique used to lay the pipe is very friendly to the environment.

Safety is another key consideration. SP AusNet has a service provider panel of contractors that deliver almost all of their capital works – mains renewal and new estates. SP AusNet’s operation and maintenance and minor works are outsourced to a single contractor following a competitive tender process. “Safety is the primary consideration in everything we do at SP AusNet, including which contractors we employ.”

What is the Energy for the Regions program?

The Victorian Government launched the Energy for the Regions program to supply natural gas to 14 targeted regional and rural Victoria towns.

The government has committed $100 million to the program, which will explore the viability of connecting natural gas to new regions by extending the existing underground distribution network or through non-traditional means.

Regional Development Victoria (RDV) is delivering the program on behalf of the government.

In addition to its ongoing expansion of the network, SP AusNet has agreed to extend its gas network to several towns identified by the program.

To date, SP AusNet has an agreement with RDV to extend its 10,000 km reticulated natural gas network to:

•       Huntly;

•       Avoca;

•       Bannockburn; and

•       Winchelsea.

In the last five years, SP AusNet has carried out works costing more than $580m in operating, maintaining and extending its natural gas network to 92,000 new homes and businesses.

This included connecting 15,000 properties as part of the State Government’s previous natural gas extension program in 12 Victorians towns (Barwon Heads, Camperdown, Creswick, Gisborne, Lancefield, Macedon, Maiden Gully, New Gisborne, Port Fairy, Riddells Creek, Romsey and Woodend).

Chris Bland

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