Member log in

Christchurch Three Years On: Orion keeps city humming

The severity of the Canterbury earthquakes on Orion’s electricity network tested the company’s ability to provide customers with a reliable supply. 

Many parts of its network suffered damage and thousands of customers lost power for several days. 

But Orion believes its response to the earthquakes and the short time it took to restore power has been widely acknowledged and applauded. 

This was thanks to planning and preparation, according to chief executive Rob Jamieson.

He took the job in August 2011 when former chief executive Roger Sutton left to begin his role as chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

The scale of the damage could have been much worse if Orion hadn’t undertaken seismic strengthening of its network in the preceding 20 years. 

Before the earthquakes Orion spent more than $6 million on seismic protection work and a further $35 million building resilience into the network. 

Without these preparations the effects of the earthquakes would have been much worse, with weeks and months of continuous power cuts across most of Christchurch. 

By getting the power back on swiftly, the impact on Canterbury’s $15 billion economy was minimised. 

The damage caused by the first earthquake in September 2010 seemed significant. But the scale of the destruction of the February 2011 earthquake on Orion’s infrastructure put that into perspective. 

The lateral forces of the February quake caused more faults on the network than would usually be seen in a decade. Substation buildings and poles moved in areas badly affected by liquefaction. 

For example, Orion’s Brighton zone substation sank more than a metre into the ground and flooding caused by liquefaction inundated other substations. 

As well as damage to substations, another major issue Orion faced was the irreparable damage to the four large underground cables that delivered power into north-east Christchurch.

Orion’s emergency response meant that within five days it had built two temporary 66,000 volt overhead lines to provide power to the affected area. One stage of a three-stage project to replace these temporary overhead lines with underground cables was completed in 2013. The final two stages are to be completed this year.

At the same time, Orion’s own staff were affected, working from temporary premises in the cordoned-off CBD red zone. The company continued to work for two and a half years from its temporary location until June 2013 when it shifted to a new office building.

Orion has a number of challenges ahead as it focuses on restoring network resilience to the levels targeted before the quakes. The company is responding to demand driven by the population flight and shift to new residential subdivisions and the relocation and development of commercial businesses. 

The CBD has effectively been closed for three years and the demand for Orion’s services has been relentless, from demolition and removal of electrical services to the significant increase in demand for connections to new or replacement premises. 

The number of applications from contractors and property owners applying for consent to work close to Orion’s overhead lines and underground cables as part of the broader rebuild has also shown accelerated growth – since 2010 the number of consents issued has increased by 800%.

In the next five years Orion is investing more than $350 million on new assets to restore network resilience and to manage customer growth. About 350km of high voltage cable will be laid and an additional $140 million will be spent on operating and maintaining its network as the company restores resilience and reliability to near pre-earthquake levels. 

Above: Severe liquefaction caused Orion’s Brighton zone substation in eastern Christchurch to tilt and sink into the ground. As soon as the building and surrounding area was drained, workers arrived to clean the substation. The methodical process of stripping back and cleaning the electrical equipment then followed

Read: the rest of the Christchurch Three Years On feature stories here