Malcolm Turnbull has blasted Labor’s renewable energy “horror show” by seizing on blackouts in South Australia to warn of outages across the country under the “insanity” of Bill Shorten’s 50 per cent renewables target.
As the energy crisis dominated parliamentary debate, the national energy market operator ordered a mothballed Adelaide gas-fired power station to fire up to increase supply and prevent further outages.
As Canberra residents were urged to restrict electricity use today by limiting cooking and avoiding using home appliances such as dishwashers, the Prime Minister warned that the blackouts could be repeated in other states under Labor’s policy for a national rollout of the failed renewable energy “experiment” in South Australia.
Wind power generation collapsed in the state on Wednesday night and deliberate load shedding was used to reduce demand.
Mr Turnbull, who yesterday convened a meeting of the newly formed energy committee of cabinet, used question time to aggressively pursue the Opposition Leader over Labor’s national target. “Why is he threatening the jobs of every Australian? Do you want to know how many Australian families will be worse off under a government led by this man? Every single one,” Mr Turnbull said.
“How many South Australians are worse off because of the Labor Left ideological approach to power? I tell you: every single one. Every single one that wants to turn the lights on, wants to put the airconditioner on, wants to have a job, wants to have some investment. Families cannot keep their children cool on a 41C day – that’s insanity for you.”
Brandishing a lump of Hunter Valley coal in the House of Representatives chamber, which was then passed among Coalition MPs on the government benches, Scott Morrison accused Labor of “coal phobia”. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared: it’s coal,” the Treasurer said.
“Those opposite have an ideological, pathological fear of coal. There’s no word for coalophobia officially but that’s the malady that afflicts those opposite, and it’s that malady that is afflicting jobs in the towns and industries.”
Opposition energy spokesman Mark Butler rejected suggestions Labor’s renewable targets were to blame for the state’s serial power outages, saying “none of these blackouts are directly connected to renewable energy”. He pointed the finger at the Australian Energy Market Operator, saying it had “forced blackouts” on South Australians by not turning on the second generator at Pelican Point.
With heatwave conditions lifting electricity consumption across South Australia and NSW and placing additional strain on the national power system, the Australian Energy Market Operator has directed the mothballed 240MW Pelican Point to power up as “reduced generation reserves” in both NSW and SA were set to continue over the weekend.
ACT government climate change minister Shane Ratenby warned of the potential for blackouts today and urged Canberrans to set air conditioners at 26 degrees, turn off unnecessary fridges, avoid using dishwashers, dryers, vacuum cleaners and TVs or computers to play games.
The operator said rolling blackouts across Adelaide on Wednesday evening were prompted by wind power dropping to 2.5 per cent of the state’s energy demand, putting strain on the Heywood interconnector between Victoria and South Australia operating “at full capacity”, and an unexpected spike in consumption after the working day.
A request for gas-fired Pelican Point to power up on Wednesday came too late for it generate power in time, leaving 90,000 homes experiencing blackouts as the market operator sought to reduce demand. While firing up the Pelican Point generator from a “cold start” takes up to six hours, the plant’s operator Engie could have decided early on Wednesday to have it ready in anticipation of the expected demand.
The Australian understands that the South Australian government has the power to ask AEMO to intervene and order the plant open using emergency provisions, but it did not do so. Blaming the regulator for failing to bring extra power into the network, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said the state was preparing to “intervene dramatically” in the market, suggesting the government could even “completely nationalise the system”.
“It would involve breaking contracts and exposing us to sovereign risk, and the South Australian taxpayer to extraordinary sums of money,” Mr Weatherill said. “It’s not a preferred option, but we’re ruling nothing out.
“One thing that is absolutely clear to us is that SA is now on its own in relation to the national electricity market. It’s on its own because the National Energy Market Operator is unable to run a system which can guarantee us security of electricity supply.”
The South Australian Labor Premier, whose government has been in power for 15 years and has enthusiastically pursued renewable energy targets aiming for 50 per cent by 2025, accused the federal government of having “abdicated its responsibilities”.
Senior federal ministers joined the Prime Minister in attacking Labor’s “triumph of ideology”, saying the state’s heavy reliance on wind power had resulted in the blackout when the wind dropped during the heatwave. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said Mr Weatherill was “trying to blame the umpire” for the bad game it had played in determining the state’s energy mix.
“It wasn’t the operator’s fault. It was Jay Weatherill’s fault and now the Leader of the Opposition wants to take this horror show national with a 50 per cent renewable energy target,” he said.
Mr Butler seized on a statement from power station owner Engie, which said it needed to be directed by the market operator.
“This exposes beyond any doubt the desperate attack of the Liberal Party on renewables and Labor as utterly baseless and built on pure fiction,” Mr Butler said.
Yesterday, electricity spot prices soared in both South Australia and NSW, with forecasts of $14,000MWh in peak times, compared with $235MWh in Victoria, with demand expected to put pressure on supply amid soaring temperatures in the next few days.
Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis warned that South Australia’s energy problems would extend to the eastern seaboard as more coal-fired power generation dropped from the system. “I think what you’re seeing at a national level is ignorance that the problem that’s occurring here is coming to a city near you on the eastern seaboard soon,” he said.
Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox said rolling blackouts and supply uncertainty would “further sap business confidence and investment”. He said neither the blame game nor writing cheques to build infrastructure would solve the state’s needs, and the grid needed to operate more effectively. Senator Nick Xenophon said he would question AEMO at a Senate inquiry into the energy market.
Additional reporting: Verity Edwards