South Australia has become a laughing stock — a state that, literally, cannot keep the lights on. South Australians are seething. We have been let down by our state and federal politicians.
Fifteen years ago yesterday, South Australians went to the polls and, ultimately, a new Labor government was installed.
The then-premier, Mike Rann, aggressively pursued a policy to make the state a world leader in the adoption of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind. Mr Rann sold this move effectively, his pitch bolstered by climate change alarm in a nation gripped by drought.
By 2006, he was basking in praise from renowned campaigner and former United States vice president Al Gore, who declared SA was “one of best examples of any state in the entire world where you see how leadership can make a tremendous difference in promoting renewable sources of energy”.
Many in the state agreed, convinced renewable energy would help tackle climate change while, particularly in the case of solar panels, providing affordable power.
Mr Rann’s successor, Premier Jay Weatherill, zealously pursued the same agenda, in late 2015 declaring the state was “running a big international experiment right now” on incorporating wind and solar.
Clearly, renewable energy is an important part of Australia’s electricity mix. But SA shows the perils of going too hard, too fast on the energy transition path and placing ideology before pragmatism.
Baseload generators are struggling for economic viability in the face of subsidised renewables or, in the case of Port Augusta’s coal-fired power station, have closed. But renewables are intermittent — meaning they rely on the wind blowing and the sun shining. As Wednesday night’s induced blackouts disastrously show, this means we sometimes simply do not have enough electricity to power the state.
There have been numerous warnings. The Advertiser in 2015 revealed deep concerns about more blackouts and higher prices after Port Augusta power station’s closure, in May last year.
Alarmingly, the first crisis arrived soon after, when key employers were on the verge of shutting down as power prices surged during storms.
Then the entire state was blacked out on September 28 last year. Storms toppling high-voltage transmission pylons were blamed by Mr Weatherill but wind farms were unable to continue producing. This contributed to a statewide shutdown, rather than a confined blackout.
Inarguably, it also showed the reliance on the interconnector to Victoria, which failed. Since then, there have been another two storm-related blackouts, highlighting our fragility.
Then, on a typically hot summer’s night on Wednesday, more than 90,000 households were blacked out to maintain the grid as demand outstripped supply.
The gas-fired Pelican Point station should have been turned on but wasn’t. It’s a sign of how little room for error there is in our renewable-reliant energy mix.
SA has become a laughing stock — a state that, literally, cannot keep the lights on. Even more disturbingly, we’ve become a place where big business like BHP Billiton cite the risk posed by unreliable power supply.
Mr Weatherill has backed Mr Rann’s renewable legacy to the hilt. Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis says we have a right to be angry. Yesterday was their ground zero, the time to admit a serious problem and offer clear solutions, rather than vague promises of an eventual fix. It was a far from convincing performance.
South Australians are seething. We have been let down by our state and federal politicians. They must display true leadership to provide a basic utility — reliable and affordable electricity.