Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and ministers were told wind not to blame for South Australia blackout
EXCLUSIVE – Mark Kenny,
Turnbull government statements blaming last year’s South Australian blackout on its high renewable energy target ignored confidential public service advice stating that it was not the cause, according to emails obtained under freedom-of-information rules.
With a febrile debate over renewable energy versus coal-fired generation suddenly raging in Canberra, the revelation is set to undermine the Coalition’s energy messaging and shatter confidence in its call for investment certainty through sober debate and bipartisan policy solutions.
The government denies it ignored the early advice, declaring it had always acknowledged up front that it was the storm which brought down lines.
However ministers had also canvassed publicly a view that the central state’s high renewable energy reliance contributed.
While a subsequent assessment did refer to the state’s energy mix as a complicating factor in security of supply, advice to the government dated September 29, 2016 – the day after the whole of SA went black following a devastating storm – suggested the problem had not been the state’s high reliance on wind generation, but rather because key parts of its electricity distribution network were wrecked during a severe weather event.
An email trail shows among other things a senior official from Malcolm Turnbull’s department seeking an explanation for the blackout at 8.31 on the evening of the storm.
Another from 7.20 the next morning outlines subsequent discussions including a 5am phone hook-up involving departmental and political staff.
That email, sent to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s own officials and others, conveyed the first-blush assessment of the blackout including advice gleaned from the Australian Energy Market Operator: “There has been unprecedented damage to the network (ie bigger than any other event in Australia), with 20+ steel transmission towers down in the north of the State due to wind damage (between Adelaide and Port Augusta). The electricity network was unable to cope with such a sudden and large loss of generation at once. AEMO’s advice is that the generation mix (ie renewable or fossil fuel) was not to blame for yesterday’s events – it was the loss of 1000 MW of power in such a short space of time as transmission lines fell over.”
Yet within hours of the calamity the Turnbull government was capitalising on the blackout, suggesting it was a function of the state’s unsustainably high quotient of wind generation which had failed to keep working in the conditions.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce led a chorus from Canberra about the state Labor government’s “unrealistic” energy policies and was quickly joined by other senior ministers including Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg and Mr Turnbull.
“Even if there is a major storm, it should not be the case that you have a major blackout across a whole state,” Mr Joyce told ABC News Radio that morning.
“There is a lot of effort that has gone on in South Australia about their renewable energy target. Maybe if the same competent effort went into actually making sure that an event such as this, a storm such as this – and another storm like this will, at some stage in the future, happen again – is there the capacity to handle it.”
By that evening, Mr Turnbull was sending a similar message on the 7.30 program: “These intermittent renewables do pose real challenges,” he said.
“Now, I regret to say that a number of the state Labor governments have over the years, set priorities and renewable targets that are extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic, and have paid little or no attention to energy security.”
Last week, another blackout in South Australia knocked out about 90,000 premises during an extreme heat event. The energy blame game intensified, even though the evidence again suggests there was adequate supply in the form of gas turbine generation, sitting idle, as the wind contribution fell to just 2.5 per cent.
Labor’s spokesman on climate change and energy Mark Butler said a “hysterical” Mr Turnbull had been caught “playing politics with a very deep crisis enveloping our energy system”.
“Recent events have shown that price spikes and supply shortages are hitting all states, including those with low levels of renewable energy and very high reliance on coal power,” he said.
Mr Turnbull has rejected any suggestion of playing politics with the issue, arguing that the blackout was caused solely by the loss of electricity towers.
“The blackout, as I’ve said many times was caused by a storm breaching transmission lines, that’s perfectly obvious, that’s the only point that was made,” he said in Canberra on Monday, before adding, “However, the introduction of a massive amount of wind energy, so variable renewable energy, made the South Australian grid very vulnerable, very, very vulnerable indeed.”
A subsequent report by AEMO concluded the overall mix of energy sources such as wind and solar had added to the complexity and therefore potentially, the vulnerability of the supply during extreme conditions.
“The growing proportion of this type of generating plant within the generation portfolio is leading to more periods with low inertia and low available fault levels, hence a lower resilience to extreme events,” the regulator advised in December.
Australia Institute executive director Ben Oquist, whose progressive think tank filed the FOI application, said it was regrettable that the government had acted politically despite being cautioned to wait.
“AEMO had told federal public servants and political advisers that renewable energy was not to blame for the blackout. But instead of informing the people of South Australia of this fact, both the Energy Minister and Prime Minister chose to push a false narrative about wind power,” he said.
“Here we see frank and fearless departmental advice being ignored when it didn’t suit a political agenda.”
As recently as Sunday, Industry and Innovation Minister Arthur Sinodinos called for less politics in the energy debate, during an appearance on Insiders.
“What industry is saying to us is they want certainty over a lower emissions future … but if industry wants certainty, there has to be a way of achieving bipartisan policy around this because we are talking about investments which take 20, 30, 40 or 50 years,” he said.