By plunging itself into darkness and flailing itself with prohibitive, self-imposed electricity costs, South Australia provides the nation with a critical warning about energy policy. It also demonstrates how our political and media debate has been complicit in this damaging delusion.
The chaos of last week’s statewide blackout took most of the nation by surprise but anyone who has been paying attention has known about the state’s rapidly diminishing energy security.
Experts have been on to this for more than a decade but the closure of two coal-fired generators at Port Augusta escalated the situation in May.
A price spike and supply crisis when the interconnector to Victoria was closed for maintenance in July was the sharpest recent warning. So, more than two months ago, in Adelaide’s Sunday Mail, my column warned about the absurd pretence that South Australia’s renewables push was “saving the planet with ridiculously expensive and unreliable energy” and that “when the wind doesn’t blow or the interconnector is broken, we’re stuck”.
The growing risk was obvious; subsidised wind energy had forced the coal-fired baseload generators out of business (as such policies intend), leaving the state increasingly reliant on the interconnector.
In a policy area with a complex technical aspect, it is important to bring the debate back to this simple reality. This is why it was easy to apportion some blame to the state government immediately after the blackout – South Australia’s deliberate effort to lift its renewable energy share to 40 per cent has made it ever more susceptible to the vagaries of a transmission line from Victoria.
A state that deliberately reduces its energy self-reliance had better ensure security of supply. Instead, the Rann and Weatherill Labor governments put the state at the mercy of the interconnector.
Weather, bushfires, accidents, capacity issues, maintenance problems and competing demands between the states are constant risks. This was recognised by Labor as far back as 2002 when its campaign promise from opposition was to build another interconnector into NSW (known as Riverlink) to “fix” the electricity system and put downward pressure on prices.
But over all of the 14 years it has been in power since then, it has done the opposite: not delivering that Riverlink proposal and undermining existing baseload generators. Even this year, standing alongside Bill Shorten during the federal election campaign, Jay Weatherill referred to South Australia’s vulnerability but blamed the previous Liberal government rather than his own renewable strategy.
“We need to be successful in building stronger connections with the eastern states,” he said.
“When the previous Liberal government privatised our electricity assets, they deliberately scotched the interconnector with NSW to drive up the price (of those assets) and that’s had a damaging effect on SA consumers because we don’t have those connections to the other states, so we’re pursuing those.”
On this fact alone – increasing reliance on the interconnector when it has known for 14 years that more connection was needed – much of the blame for the calamitous blackout has to be sheeted home to Labor. In decades past, even the worst bushfire disasters did not black out all of South Australia. Yet Labor, state and federal, can only talk about the weather.
“This is a superstorm, 80,000 lightning strikes,” said Shorten. “That didn’t happen because of a renewable energy target, that’s the weather.” Weatherill even suggested everything worked as it should. “The system has behaved as it’s meant to behave to protect the national energy market,” he said.
Weatherill and Shorten’s excuses seemed desperate to anyone familiar with the situation. The transmission towers that were taken down by the storm were 250km north of Adelaide and no longer carried baseload power from coal generators to the populated areas – yet the blackouts took out the entire state. Still, as they do, most journalists and political commentators immediately echoed these Labor lines, jumping to defend renewables. Yet the more we learn the worse it gets.
The Australian Energy Market Operator’s initial report found it was the sudden and thus far unexplained collapse of wind energy that triggered the shutdown of the interconnector and then the statewide blackout. (In fact, most of the felled transmission towers came down after the power was cut.)
Even worse, wind energy was next to useless when it came to restarting the system; it needs synchronous baseload power to re-energise and stabilise. There was only one gas-fired station, Torrens Island, available to do that. One of the clearest warnings about all this came 13 years ago from the state’s then Essential Services Commission chairman, Lew Owens. He shared “concerns” with a parliamentary inquiry into wind farms about the “acceptable amount of wind energy that we can tolerate within the electricity system without causing major operational problems” for the power network.
“As you start to increase the quantity of wind power coming into that system up to 100 megawatts, 200MW, or whatever, you start to cause this instability in the rest of the system where, for example, if we had 1000MW of wind energy coming in, most of the baseload stations in SA would be required to shut down, and to then start them up again is a 10-hour operation,” Owens said.
“There becomes a physical limit to just how much of this wind energy, which can be full capacity one hour and down to zero the next hour, you can actually fit into the system.”
The state has far surpassed those levels with at least 1473MW of wind capacity and rising – another 225MW in confirmed projects.
We now know there are three clear vulnerabilities from South Australia’s renewable stance: additional reliance on the interconnector; fluctuations of supply from wind turbines can trip transmission; and because wind energy can’t restart the system the reactivation is slowed. This comes on top of the starting issue for renewables – that because of intermittence, they require back-up generation, thereby increasing costs.
That there has been so little discussion of these issues during the past decade is a sad indictment on political debate. Journalists, politicians, activists and business interests indulge in emotive barracking for renewables.
On Radio National last week Paul Bongiorno agreed with Weatherill’s claim that we were seeing agendas being pushed – not by those chasing renewable virtue but those pointing out the cost and supply implications. “Oh we certainly are and it’s close to disgraceful,” Bongiorno said. “But, look, I think the big issue that we should look at here is preparedness for extreme weather or extreme weather management.”
Even a week later, confronted with the facts, he couldn’t see the windmills for the storms.
“Look, a lot of politics is being played here and I think we need a touchstone to reality, one of the touchstones is how prepared not only is South Australia but the rest of the Australian states to withstand storms of this magnitude that scientists tell us will occur more frequently thanks to climate change.”
This alarmist fantasy, where the answer is more wind, faster, has been put in its place for now. Suddenly the facts have inconveniently forced their way into the debate.
Proselystisers such as the Greens, Bongiorno and Weatherill will continue to tilt at those who question windmills but the meeting of the nation’s energy ministers agreed to re-examine security issues. To that extent, South Australia’s storm may be a godsend to the nation. It should create pause for thought in Victoria and Queensland before they emulate South Australia’s folly. And it will attract a spotlight to federal Labor’s policy for a national 50 per cent renewable target.
We are left to consider the folly of all this. Because of the globally infinitesimal carbon emission reductions involved, none of this nonsense can help the planet’s atmosphere where CO2 levels continue to rise.
And in South Australia they remain more reliant than ever on an interconnector that brings in cheap, reliable baseload power from the brown coal generators of Gippsland. Oh, the cant.