The Coalition appears to have abandoned all pretence that it supports renewable energy, now contradicting assurances by the grid owner and market operator – and now the biggest generator in the country – that the source of energy was not at fault for the massive blackout in South Australia last week.
After prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and energy minister Josh Frydenberg used the opportunity to use the blackout to try and force the Labor states to abandon their own renewable energy targets, they were joint by industry, science and innovation minister Greg Hunt on Monday.
In an opinion piece written for the Australian Financial Review, and reported as the front page lead “SA blackout could have been avoided” – Hunt claimed that a coal fired generator could have kept the lights on in Olympic Dam and Whyalla and avoided much of the damage, and he also chastised the states for chasing unrealistic targets.
First on the targets:
“The South Australian and Victorian governments are seeking to drive out baseload power out of their systems for ideological reasons,” Hunt said, adding that their respective targets (50 per cent renewable energy by 2050 and 40 per cent by 2025) could only be achieved by driving out baseload generation.
This is what Hunt said last December, while environment minister and speaking in Paris during the climate talks:
“I have encouraged the states that if they want to do something extra, (they should) apply reverse auctions to the renewable energy target in the way the Australian Capital Territory has done.”
So there’s a change of tune. On one hand urging the states to do more. Then, chastising them for doing exactly that.
As for the statements about the ability of coal power to withstand the catastrophic event that brought down 23 transmission towers in 5 different locations and took out three of the four major lines linking South Australia’s north to the south east, Hunt appears to be taking his cue from the fossil fuel lobby.
He wrote in the AFR:
“As the Australian Industry Group has observed, if SA policy had not deliberately forced the Northern base load power station offline, supply to Whyalla’s Arrium Steel plant and to BHP’s Olympic Dam smelting operations would almost certainly have been continuous. This would not only have saved millions of dollars of lost income, but provided a basis for future investment security.
This, of course, is contradicted by Electranet, the Australian Energy Market Operator, and today also by AGL Energy,
which has the biggest portfolio of coal fired generators in the country, and has the dominant market position in South Australia.
“It doesn’t make any difference what is hanging off the end of those wires,” AGL chief executive Andrew Vesey told the All Energy conference in Melbourne on Tuesday. “When you lose significant transmission and have significant change in real time between load and supply, bad things happen.”
RenewEconomy asked Hunt’s office why it thought that a coal fired power station could have kept the power on, and resisted the massive loss of infrastructure that caused the sudden loss of supply and caused the entire network to trip, including the interconnector linking the state with Victoria.
Hunt’s office replied:
“The transmission lines from Port Augusta to Whyalla were not damaged by the storm. Power is only being impacted because of the damage on the other side of the gulf and the need to maintain stability in the network.
“Therefore if Port Augusta had retained base load generation this could have been available to assist in maintaining both the lines North and South West of Port Augusta.”
Energy experts say this is nonsense, saying it reveals a fundamental failure to understand how the system works. The catastrophic failure of the transmission system would have left the coal fired generators without much of their load, causing exactly the same sudden change in frequency and voltage that would cause any generator to trip.
“The minister’s comments show a fundamental lack of understanding around how the system works and responds to such a dramatic fault, and what it takes to perform a “black start”/restart the system,” said Melbourne Energy Institute’s Dylan McConnell.
We asked Hunt’s office again what they thought would happen when a big generator suddenly lost most of its load, but we didn’t get a response. Just to repeat: this is the office of the Australian federal minister of science, industry and innovation.
Electranet and the Australian Energy Market Operator have made it clear that the source of the energy – coal, wind or gas – made no difference to the outcome, such was the stunning nature of the event.
But since it happened, the Coalition has been able to orchestrate a campaign that deliberately sows doubt about these claims.
The Murdoch media fell into line and David Salter chronicles how virtually every commentator sought to blame renewables even though some of the news stories “admitted” that renewables were not at fault. It’s depressing reading from the “dependable twice weekly doomsday Judith Sloan …
“Successive Labor administrations have embarked on the folly of thinking that the state’s economic future could be based on willful over-promotion of intermittent, expensive and unreliable renewable energy. South Australia has paid a high price for this deluded approach.”
To political reporter Sid Maher, who elevated this nonsense to the level of wishful surmise:
“Wednesday night’s total failure of power in South Australia … is a disaster for renewable energy zealots and should be a wake-up call for political leaders. Energy experts told The Australian yesterday the cascading shutdown … could have been caused by wind farms closing in sequence as the storm hit.”
We also pointed out how Fairfax energy reporter Brian Robins did the same, and the AFR took up the cudgels on Monday, with its page two columnist Jennifer Hewett writing: “It seems likely that a full blackout of the state could have been avoided” if it had coal fired caseload generation. She didn’t say how or why.
The Coalition, with media support, appears to be taken the line successfully adopted by Donald Trump, where if you simply repeat a whole bunch of mis-truths, something will stick. And how.
The idea appears to be to throw as much confusion and doubt about renewable energy, and then exploit a publish backlash to force a slowdown in policy. So far, though, the states are resisting.
But the more worrying factor is this: that the government and the fossil fuel lobby is succeeding – with the help of Fairfax, the Murdoch media, the ABC, and of course talk-back radio – in filling the newspaper, the airwaves and the internet with ill-informed and misleading rubbish.
As Clean Energy Council CEO Kane Thornton said: “No form of electricity generation can provide power to consumers when the electricity grid is lying on the ground.”
The reality is that the challenges will only be addressed by new market rules, making the grid fit for the 21st Century, as the Victoria energy minister Lily d’Ambrosio and AGL’s Vesey pointed out today, and by encouraging new technologies and practices.
As energy expert Alan Pears has pointed out, the South Australia government has tried several times to get the CoAG Energy Council to implement demand side bidding, which would have reduced the impacts of the recent interruption, and the gas price blip.
This though, under lobbying from the fossil fuel industry, which has opposed other initiatives, was rejected by CoAG.
“If the feds want to criticise the South Australia government, there is a case to blame the members of CoAG energy council at least as much, for their focus on the welfare of (in some cases state owned) energy companies at the expense of the Australian community,” Pears said by email. “Such short memories.”