South Australia, renewables and 2016 blackout

This is a hot potato subject which is pitting the major political parties against each other and causing a fiery debate around this complex subject.

Renewable energy targets, together with the topic of climate change, which is driving the growth and interest in renewables, is a highly politicised topic.

When South Australia suffered a major statewide blackout on 28 September 2016, it was fair to say that the state, under the state Labor Party leadership of Premier Jay Weatherill, had been pursing aggressive renewable energy targets.

The Liberal Party Prime Minster at the time Malcolm Turnbull, stated that these targets were “extremely aggressive and unrealistic”.

To try and understand the whole story involves a lot of reading and research. I located the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) review in their final report about the event. The name of the report is “Black System South Australia 28 September 2016”, Published March 2017. It is 273 pages long. Here is a link to AEMO’s webpage and the relevant report –

ABC’s Sabra Lane filed a report about the event, on ABC’s current affairs program the ‘7.30 Report’ on 29 September 2016, which gives an insight into some of the different player’s perspectives. Here is the transcript of the report as well as a link to the clip of the report.

NEWS REPORTER: The disaster is unfolding here in South Australia brought on by the weather, an unprecedented event – an entire blackout right across the state.

JAY WEATHERILL, SA PREMIER: This is a major weather event which has knocked out a major piece of infrastructure.

SENATOR NICK XENOPHON, NICK XENOPHON TEAM: This is a disgrace. How did this happen? How is an entire state blacked out?

JAY WEATHERILL: It’s regrettable that people would leap to a political criticism at this time.

SABRA LANE, REPORTER: The intense weather system that ripped across South Australia has been described as catastrophic, a one in 50 year event.

JAY WEATHERILL: It’s not simply a storm, it’s an unprecedented weather event the likes of which has not been seen by the Bureau of Meteorology here.

Two tornadoes ripping through the centre of our state. Destroying not one, not two but three critical elements of infrastructure.

SABRA LANE: 23 power pylons, what the Australian energy market operator describes as the backbone of South Australia’s electricity distribution network buckled like matchsticks.

Lightning also struck a power station and the two interconnectors to Victoria which could supply power to South Australia in a shortage shut down automatically to protect the national system from long-term damage.

As a result SA was plunged into darkness. Before homeowners could switch lights back on or clear away the debris, the blame game was underway.

SENATOR NICK XENOPHON: I can’t believe that my state is in darkness at the moment. This should not have happened and if heads have to roll so be it.

SABRA LANE: Long time critics of renewables pounced.

BARNABY JOYCE, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: There’s certain areas where wind power works. It doesn’t work when there’s no wind and it doesn’t work when there’s excessive wind and it obviously wasn’t working too well last night because they had a blackout.

SABRA LANE: The Prime Minister and Energy Minister both blamed the freak weather event for the outage yet they’re using the episode to question the state’s rapid switch to renewables.

JOSH FRYDENBERG, ENERGY MINISTER: While the event in South Australia according to the Australian energy market operator, occurred because of those extreme weather events.

I’ve been very clear about that, there is broader questions about the future of energy security in this country which is our number one priority.

When it comes to the speedy uptake of renewables and whether the system is built sufficiently to take into account the impact of that change.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, PRIME MINISTER: If you are stuck in an elevator, if the lights won’t go on, if your fridge is thawing out, everything in the fridge is thawing out because the power has gone.

You are not going to be concerned about the particular source of that power.

Whether it is hydro, wind, solar, coal or gas. You want to be – know that the energy is secure.

BILL SHORTEN, OPPOSITION LEADER: The Liberals and the Nationals, I think, quite cynically, are trying to take a disaster which has hit the state and use it for their own political purposes.

Shame on Malcolm Turnbull for doing that.

SABRA LANE: Why do you think wind generation is the sort of bogey man in all of this?

ANDREW BRAY, AUSTRALIAN WIND ALLIANCE: It’s difficult to say, because renewable energy is incredibly popular with the Australian public. Renewable energy in general has a support rating of 80% to 90%.

Wind farms, 70% to 80%. So people want to see these go ahead. But there are a few political agendas sitting out there that want to either hold back the move to renewables or just slow it down.

SABRA LANE: South Australia leads the country in the switch to renewable energy. Along with rooftop solar, wind turbines supply nearly 40% of its power needs.

TONY WOOD, GRATTAN INSTITUTE: There is no connection as far as I can see of a high level of intermittent power, that is wind, which is what we were concerned about in South Australia and what happened yesterday.

The main transmission between Port Augusta and Adelaide was fundamentally taken out by the storm and the coal fired power stations that had been shut down in May were in Port Augusta.

So in that sense it wouldn’t have made any difference whether Adelaide was getting its electricity from coal, wind or nuclear.

SABRA LANE: The decommissioning of that plant prompted some energy analysts to warn the state’s power system was vulnerable and too reliant on intermittent sources.

That prediction played out in July. The wind turbines failed to generate power on one day because the wind didn’t below.

Customers were forced to pay astronomical amounts to source energy from other states.

That incident prompted the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood to publish a report this week to warn the July power shock was the sign of a broken system.

He says consumers are right to demand answer after last night’s outage.

TONY WOOD: People are wanting to know why wasn’t I protected? Who’s going to fix this? Who is responsible and so forth.

And it’s important to know what went wrong because for an entire state to be blacked out, even with major transmission line going down, is very unusual and that needs to be understood but I think to blame it on, for example, high levels of renewable energy is just wrong and could lead us to the wrong answer.

JAY WEATHERILL, SA PREMIER: This was a weather event. This was not a renewable energy event.

SABRA LANE: 7.30 asked the Australian energy market operator for an interview today but it was unavailable.

The agency’s been ordered to complete a snap review of what happened. It will be presented to an urgent meeting of Federal and state energy ministers.

Malcolm Turnbull, who lost the Liberal leadership in 2009 over policies to decarbonise the economy, has used the episode to pressure state Labor governments.

He’s accused them of prioritising ideology over energy security.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: I regret to say that a number of the state Labor governments have, over the years, set priorities and renewable targets that are extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic and have paid little or no attention to energy security.

Queensland, for example, has a 50% renewable target currently renewables are about 4.5% of their mix. So, what’s the pathway to achieve that? Very hard to see it. It’s a political or ideological statement.

ADAM BANDT, GREENS MP: For Malcolm Turnbull to use this as an opportunity to urge governments around the country to slow down the uptake of renewable energy is reprehensible and craven and he should be condemned for it.

JOSH FRYDENBERG: Let me be absolutely clear. Energy security is this government’s number one priority. We must keep the lights on.