Former energy boss and union settle defamation case over Alice Springs blackouts

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The former head of the main utility in the Northern Territory, Tim Duignan, says he has settled a defamation action brought agains the Electricity Trades Union over its claims that he was partly responsible for blackouts that hit Alice Springs in 2019.

The NT energy market has been going through upheavals as it works out how to manage the shift to 50 per cent renewables by 2030, with arguments over procedure and resolving archaic market rules, and complaints about the lack of action on the renewable energy roadmap delivered by independent experts five years ago.

The gridlock has resulted in at least four large scale solar farms sitting idle for more than a year as a result of the battle over market rules, and tensions between some parties erupted when a series of blackouts hit Alice Springs, including a nine-hour outage in October, 2019.

Both Duignan, then the head of Territory Generation, and Michael Thomson, the head of Power and Water, lost their jobs after a government report into the causes of the outages, which followed a transfer between the ageing Ron Goodin generators in Alicer Springs to the newly installed Owen Springs generators.

As RenewEconomy reported at the time, the investigation by the Utilities Commission highlighted some of the deep problems within the NT energy sector.

An investigating report by consultants Entura found that staff managing the system did not anticipate the approaching cloud cover, and did not know what to do when they realised what was happening and output from the Uterne solar farm and rooftop solar panels declined.

Duignan took offence when the ETU – which had opposed the switch from Ron Goodin to Owen Springs – put the blame squarely on him. He took court action alleging defamation in early 2020, and the two parties have now settled the dispute.

“As I stated at the time, and as is now acknowledged in the joint statement, in my role as CEO of TGen, I was required to act under the directions and authority of Power and Water Corporation who are the responsible authority for electricity supply in Alice Springs,” Duignan said in a statement.

“Finally, I am pleased that in the joint statement, the Union has also acknowledged that TGen and myself complied at all times with the Memorandum of Understanding that was in place between TGen and the Union in relation to the terms of the transition from Ron Goodin to Owen Springs Power Station.”

The joint letter signed by Duignan and the ETU reads:

“At the time of the outages, Power and Water Corporation was the Power System Controller responsible for monitoring and overseeing the electricity system in Alice Springs. Territory Generation (TGen) was the entity that generated and supplied the electricity.

“Several of the ETU publications were critical of TGen management, including of its CEO Tim Duignan, in relation to the electricity outages.

“However, it should be clarified that it was Power and Water Corporation that was ultimately responsible for the electricity supply to Alice Springs. Mr Duignan, in his role as CEO of TGen, was required to act under the directions and authority of Power and Water Corporation. The CEPU and ETU acknowledge that the NT Government’s investigation into the electricity outages did not place any responsibility for the outages with Mr Duignan.

“In relation to the transition from Ron Goodin to Owen Springs Power Station, TGen entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the ETU about the terms of the transition and Mr Duignan ensured that TGen complied with those terms.”

Duignan, who now works as an independent energy consultant, declined to comment further on the issue.

The NT, however, is still facing problems, with at least four solar farms sitting idle because of a dispute with PWC over its demands for certain amounts of battery storage and new rules about dispatchability, and while it waits for a new big battery to be built in Darwin, which may not actually remedy the problem facing the solar farms.

See also:

“Scared of solar”: Why the Top End’s first big solar farms are not switched on

Billionaires’ huge solar dream overshadows troubling energy wars in Top End

NT sacks energy chiefs after report into Alice Springs system black

Alice Springs: Solar city at centre of a fossil fuel controversy

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