As clean-up began after South Australia’s freak storms, the federal energy minister seized the opportunity for a debate on renewables. By Karen Middleton.

Political power struggle after SA’s statewide blackout

Every South Australian will have a story about the night the lights went out.

As wild storms lashed the state on Wednesday, social media proved some managed to maintain a sense of humour in the darkness.

“Congratulations South Australia!” one Instagrammer posted in a map meme. “The first state to reach zero emissions.” 

But governments – and a few others beside – are demanding to know: Why did an entire state lose power in one storm-ravaged afternoon?

“South Australia has been hit by a one-in-50-year weather event,” the federal energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, declared on Thursday, providing an update on the freak circumstances that fused his newly conjoined portfolios in a single emergency. “Some 80,000 lightning strikes hit the state yesterday, and cyclonic winds.”

As the massive storm battered South Australia, 23 transmission towers were knocked over, bringing down crucial power lines. A power station was also struck by lightning.

According to Frydenberg, those two weather-driven events “plus others” led to electricity surging through the two interconnectors that supply electricity from Victoria into South Australia.

To protect consumers and their homes and businesses from what would have been a massive jolt, the system shut down. 

1 . ‘A cascading effect’

The Australian Energy Market Operator’s preliminary examination revealed there was what Frydenberg calls “a cascading effect”.

“When one part went down, this led to demands on other parts and it just flowed on to the situation where you had the whole state go into black,” Frydenberg said. 

Those are the basic facts, but they don’t provide all the answers. What isn’t yet known is why that particular sequence of events left a population of 1.7 million in the dark on a cold September night – and some of them for longer. 

Were there other factors in South Australia that turned a horrendous storm into a wider catastrophe? And could it happen elsewhere?

The Australian Energy Market Operator has begun an investigation and will prepare a report for government.

Frydenberg has called an emergency meeting of federal, state and territory energy ministers to discuss the implications for the rest of the country.

The varying sources of Australia’s energy, from fossil fuels to renewables, will feature strongly in their deliberations. 

“Let me be absolutely clear: energy security is this government’s No. 1 priority,” Frydenberg said on Thursday. “We must keep the lights on. And while we are transitioning to a lower emissions future, we will not compromise on energy security.”

In the vein of Winston Churchill’s advice that political leaders should never let a good crisis go to waste, the federal government was taking the opportunity even before the state had begun mopping up to drive home its message that renewables are not yet reliable enough to become a primary energy source.

2 . Pointing the finger

South Australia’s heavy reliance on renewable energy is already facing heavy scrutiny as people seek to point the finger of blame beyond the storm.

South Australia has the second-highest use of renewable energy of any state after Tasmania, which draws 90 per cent of its power from hydro-electricity.

In South Australia, 41 per cent of the state’s energy comes from wind and solar power, with the rest from gas.

The difference between those renewable energy sources is that hydro-electricity is considered a “base-load” power – one that is dependable enough to consistently meet demand. 

Wind and solar energy are more intermittent because generation relies on the presence of sunshine and a stiff breeze and there is limited capacity for storage to cover the still, grey days.

They are therefore considered to be less reliable.

Back on July 7, when the main South Australian interconnector to Victoria was down for maintenance, a drop in wind – and therefore in wind power – saw the state fall back on its baseload gas power, which was already in high demand for heating on a winter’s night.

That meant the price spiked dramatically from $60 a megawatt hour, to $9000 a megawatt hour. Electricity retailers largely absorbed the increase through long-term contracts, protecting households from the rise. But it sparked debate about the reliability of wind energy.

Frydenberg argues that some states are trying to switch to renewable sources of energy too quickly, reducing their ability to cope when a terrible event such as Wednesday’s storm occurs.

3 . ‘Transmission failure’

But research fellow Dylan McConnell, of Melbourne University’s Energy Institute, writing on The Conversation website, says the level of renewables played no role.

“A lot of generation capacity was lost because of the transmission failure,” McConnell writes. “Because of that there was a voltage drop, which triggered safety protection measures that tripped the Heywood interconnector that connects South Australia with Victoria. This could have happened in any state or with any generation technology.”

Nevertheless, Frydenberg and the government are pointing to the incident as reason to revisit renewable energy targets, describing the varying state and territory targets as “a hotchpotch”. 

As an example, Frydenberg singles out the Labor-run states, comparing South Australia’s target with those in Victoria and Queensland.

South Australia’s target is to draw 50 per cent of its power from renewable sources by 2025 – just 9 per cent above its current level. But its power prices are also very high. 

Only 12 per cent of Victoria’s energy is renewable currently, but its target is 40 per cent by 2025.  

Queensland gets only 4.5 per cent of its power from renewables now, but its target is 50 per cent by 2030.

The Labor-led Australian Capital Territory government, which faces voters on October 14, has a target of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr is determined to pursue the transition to his absolute target.

“We have sourced our energy from a number of different sources within this region, predominantly solar and interstate predominantly wind power through a competitive auction process around the country,” Barr says. “Canberra’s power sources are secure.”

Frydenberg says the differences between the states and territories encourage investment in states and sectors that is neither economically efficient nor producing the best environmental outcome. 

4 . Wanting a single target

The federal government wants one single, lower target across the country.

“We at the Commonwealth level have a target of 23.5 per cent by 2020 and we’re currently at 15 per cent,” Frydenberg says. “Now that’s still going to be hard to get there but if you’ve got these completely unrealistic state targets, then it does raise issues for the stability of the system and the most efficient use of resources.”

His prime minister has gone further, labelling some state targets “extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic” and having too little regard for energy security.

He says the Labor states are playing political games.

“Let’s focus now, let’s take this storm in South Australia … as a real wake-up call,” Turnbull said. “Let’s end the ideology and focus on clear renewable targets.”

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is critical of wind power in particular.

“It works when wind is on the milder side,” Joyce said on Thursday. “It doesn’t work when there’s no wind and it doesn’t work when there’s excessive wind and it wasn’t working too well last night because they had a blackout.”

The premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, says it’s the federal government politicising the event and Joyce in particular, who he said was on a “jihad against wind farms”.

“We’re in a crisis at the moment,” Weatherill said. “I’ve got workers there risking life and limb trying to restore power in these extreme conditions and you’ve got people off playing politics on this.”

Weatherill insists the state’s baseload power capacity – of 2850 megawatts – existed beyond the measured demand on Wednesday and it was the severe damage to the lines and the ongoing weather conditions making it difficult to repair them that caused the extended outage, not any overall power shortfall in the system.

“The national electricity market disconnected to protect itself,” he said. “And then the generators disconnected to protect themselves. If they didn’t and they were damaged, we wouldn’t have the capacity to restore this system in hours or even days. It would be weeks.”

5 . Independent review

The premier has instigated his own independent review of what happened, and why.

He rejected suggestions that relying heavily on intermittent power sources had caused the fluctuations in power that in turn had tripped the interconnectors.

“This was a weather event,” Weatherill said. “This was not a renewable energy event. There are other challenges with the national electricity market around price and stability, which need to be addressed. But it was not this event.”

Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten agreed. “I think it’s disgraceful that the conservatives are playing politics with what is a natural disaster,” he said. “Now, even if they want to play the blame game, surely isn’t it appropriate to wait until all the houses have their power back on, until we know the bill, until we know what’s happened? … The experts have made it clear, what has taken the power out in South Australia is the weather, not a government policy.”

Shorten says he is prepared to hear the arguments for a single national renewable energy target – but he’s suspicious of the government’s motives.  

Prime Minister Turnbull has backed his federal ministers’ broad point, arguing a key underlying issue is which sources of energy are consistently reliable.

Turnbull said that in a crisis such as the one on Wednesday night, people just wanted the power back on and were less concerned about where it came from than knowing it was there when they needed it.

“If you are stuck in an elevator, if the lights won’t go on, if everything in the fridge is thawing out because the power is gone, you are not going to be concerned about the particular source of that power,” he said on Thursday. “Whether it is hydro, wind, solar, coal or gas, you want to know that the energy is secure. That has to be the key priority.”

6 . ‘Rank opportunism’

Greens MP Adam Bandt has called the government’s questioning of renewable energy “reprehensible”.

“It’s just rank opportunism and factually wrong to start blaming this on renewable energy.” 

He said it was global warming that caused the storms. “It’s a wake-up call as to what would happen if we don’t get global warming under control.” 

Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon is calling for an independent inquiry into the incident, pointing to a report the Australian Energy Market Operator and electricity transmission specialists ElectraNet produced in February this year, warning of just this kind of situation.

The report was an update of a 2014 examination of the South Australian electricity system and its high reliance on renewable energy.

The 2014 report found the system could operate securely and reliably provided the Heywood interconnector was functioning and there was “sufficient synchronous generation” – baseload power – connected and running.

“AEMO and ElectraNet have identified potential challenges for management of the SA power system in relation to AEMO’s ability to meet the Frequency Operating Standards either during or following the loss of the Heywood interconnector, resulting in SA being islanded from the remainder of the [national electricity market],” the report says. 

That appears to be what happened on Wednesday afternoon.

“Whatever excuses politicians from the Liberal and Labor parties want to make about this, the fact is we need an independent inquiry to get to the truth of what occurred,” Xenophon said.

He said South Australia had become “the laughing stock of the nation” for being unable to keep the power on.

Xenophon believes that if his home state had maintained more gas-fired generators, with better baseload power that can be stored for longer, the damage to the infrastructure might not have had to plunge the whole state into darkness.

“The question is, was it avoidable?” Xenophon asked. “And I think there are some experts out there who say it was avoidable.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2016 as "Power struggle after statewide blackout".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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