SA blackout: The 'renewables and Labor did it' tale

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(Bureau of Meteorology satellite image via abc.net.au)

John Passant discusses the absurdity of the Turnbull Government's claims that the SA blackouts were caused by renewables.

AS I WROTE on Thursday and as others have pointed out on this site as well, the Turnbull Government rushed in where angels fear to tread and disingenuously blamed renewables for the blackout in South Australia.

They used the blackout as an opportunity to bad mouth renewables — in part, doing so to defend their coal mining mates and their profits.

In the longer term, it is about trying to force the states and Territories to cut their current – and, in the words of both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Minister for Energy and the Environment Josh Frydenberg, "unrealistic" renewable energy targets under the guise of a national renewables target.

The Commonwealth’s renewable energy target is 23.5% by 2020 while, as the Clean Energy Council points out in their 2015 report, some (Labor) states are aiming for up to 50% by 2025. In the ACT, the target is 100% renewables by 2020.

The only thing unrealistic about these state targets is they are too low. Oh hang on, there is a second aspect to this unreality. The states are nowhere near achieving their targets. In NSW, for example, renewables usage in 2015 stood at almost 8% and in Queensland, it was a bit over 4%.

In fact, as the Clean Energy Council tells us, the Abbott Government (an earlier iteration of the Turnbull Government),

'In mid-2015, the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET) was reduced from 41,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) to 33,000 GWh by 2020.'

As we know from the duplicity and lies of the Turnbull Government about its pathetic greenhouse gas emissions targets, all that is solid melts into air’.

Or as polite people like the Grattan Institute's Tony Wood put it:

'Australia has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. It is the absence of a credible, national climate change policy to reduce power sector emissions in line with this target that creates unmanageable investor uncertainty and drives state and territory governments to adopt their own policies, misguided as they might be.'

Like the Turnbull Government’s lack of a credible national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reducing energy renewable targets, under the laughable "rationale" of providing energy security, is about protecting the very wealthy fossil fuel interests. In the context of a warming planet, to talk of fossil fuels, the very product which creates these conditions, as providing security is satire in the extreme.

I start from an incontrovertible fact. The bogey man of renewable energy did not black out South Australia. Nor did renewable energy targets.  

A massive and prolonged storm ripped through South Australia. There were 80,000 lightning strikes (including hitting poles, wires and one station) and huge torrents of rain and flooding. According to the ABC, at various places throughout the State, winds averaged 50kph to 65kph, with gusts between 95kph and 115kph. The end result was 22 transmission poles being torn down and innumerable transmission lines destroyed or disabled. As a safety measure, this triggered the shutdown of the supply system, including the interconnectors which bring in electricity from interstate. 

How could wind gusts of only up to 115kph tear down transmission poles?  

Part of the answer has to do with geography.

As Hugh Saddler states:

'As a generalisation the electricity supply system in South Australia is at higher risk of blackouts occurring than other areas with mature electricity grids such as Europe or North America, Victoria, New South Wales and south east Queensland. This is a simple consequence of geography and population density, not of the quality of the grid per se.'

This makes South Australia more likely to suffer blackouts in the event of severe weather events than the more mature areas of the network like New South Wales, Victoria and south east Queensland.

There are a couple of other elephants in the room — elephants that blaming renewable energy conveniently obscures.

First, Minister Frydenberg and others have pointed out the high cost of energy in South Australia.

However, as Ian McAuley says:

‘The main driver of those high distribution and retail costs has been privatisation.’

The regulators allow the distributors very high return on capital.

In 1999, the then Liberal government in South Australia privatised the whole electricity industry there. 

As Professor John Quiggin said in a report on electricity privatisation: 

‘SA really is the Exhibit A in privatisation leading to higher prices.’

As to comparable costs, free enterprise fanatics argue that coal and gas are cheaper than solar and wind and other renewables. That is only true if you ignore the cost of climate change, a cost Ian McAuley, for example, argues would equalise the current prices of renewables and dirty energy production if those costs were factored in. 

Privatisation raises another question. If the sole purpose of a privatised electricity industry is to make profit (as I am pretty sure it is) won’t some providers risk using old and poorly secured transmission poles and lines to save on costs, with the result that they could easily get knocked down during wind gusts of only 115 kph? I don’t know enough to answer that question but I think it is worth raising.

Certainly, as Ben Potter in the Australian Financial Review points out, cyclone-proofing the transmission sector in SA would be very very expensive. It could have been done ten years ago, but not now.

So why wasn’t it done ten years ago?

The SA and Northern Territory branch of the Australian Services Union has pointed the finger at privatisation of the industry in SA as one reason for the blackout. Already, debate has begun in Queensland over electricity privatisation and the capacity to deal with storms like the one in SA.

The other elephant in the already pachyderm-filled room is climate change. 

This storm, we are told, was a once in 50 year event. One indicator of climate change is not that such events occur but that they are increasing in frequency and intensity.

This gives the climate change deniers an out. Well you can’t point to this event. It is a once in a lifetime event. However, as the Climate Council’s Will Steffen has pointed out, the storm in South Australia is just the start.

Steffen said, as reported by Richard Lawson:

"This is a prelude to a disturbing future, and it's only going to get worse if we don't address climate change."

Capitalism is on an inexorable path to the death of the planet and the SA storm is just another entrée to the feast of climate change destruction.

What to do?

The Turnbull Government could have a parliamentary vote on same sex marriage and use the $200 million saved to help South Australia recover right now. It could save $24 billion by cancelling the purchase of useless fighter jets and use the money to put Australia at the forefront of the defence of the planet against climate change.

It won’t. It is trapped in systemic irrationality and the madness of the market. It is and will be up to us — up to you and me. 

Read more by John Passant on his website En PassantYou can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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