It would be wrong to give Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill all the credit for turning South Australia into wackadoodle windmill world. We should recognise the contribution of those who egged the premiers on, like Al Gore, auteur of An Inconvenient Truth. When it came to showing leadership on renewable energy, said Gore, South Australia was “one of best examples of any state in the entire world”.
Neither should we forget the public servants who gave the premiers frank and fearless advice that was utterly bonkers. A wind-powered economy, premier? What a courageous idea.
When governments are capable of errors of judgment on this scale it’s little wonder the public has grown weary of experts. We should not be surprised at this distrust of politicians who outsource vital decisions to mediocrities and act on sentiment rather than evidence.
Weatherill called his aggressive pursuit of renewable energy “a bit of an international experiment” in an interview 14 months ago. “We have got to take risks to show what the future of community looks like,” he said.
Last week The Advertiser dispatched a reporter to the Adelaide Hills to discover what “the future of community” might mean after three major blackouts in the past six months. “We’re nervous about buying bulk meat,” said one resident. “We lose our water … we can’t have a shower because we run on tanks.” The fish shop in Hahndorf has grown used to throwing out stock. “You hear about Third World countries having power cuts,” says owner John Stanley. “What are we?”
Coopers Cafe and Bistro would like to buy a generator, but after the losses it has suffered through power cuts it can’t afford one.
It’s bad enough to treat voters as crash-test dummies in a trial of dumb ideas; it is more infuriating when the intellectual lightweights who caused this mess refuse to accept responsibility. When 60,000 premises in his home state were plunged into darkness last week, Labor’s federal spokesman on climate change, Mark Butler, called it a “hiccup”. SA had been having “a very, very bad run” for several months, he told ABC Radio. “On each occasion it has had nothing to do with renewable energy.”
Nonsense. When the power shut down on Wednesday, demand was more than 3000MW, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator, yet the windmills were dribbling out less than 90MW. It is not called intermittent energy for nothing. Closing the coal-fired power stations in Port Augusta, which the government now wants to demolish, proved to be a foolish mistake.
Yet Weatherill adopts the posture of a victim, blaming everyone but himself. The only apology he’s made since last September’s power cuts was to LGBTQI community members “wronged by historical laws”. He is prepared to reform the Births, Deaths and Marriages Act to make it easier for South Australians to change their registered gender, but he refuses to revisit Labor’s renewable energy policy.
SA is being “shafted” because it’s at the end of the electricity network, he claims; none of this would have happened if the commonwealth had put a price on carbon; the outages are caused by network damage on the Victorian side of the Heywood interconnector; Malcolm Turnbull “must stand up to the right wing of his party and reject its pro-coal agenda, not take the low road of trashing renewables”.
Labor has been slow to realise its mistake in adopting vanity renewable energy targets but it is beginning to dawn. With a state election less than a month away, the West Australian Labor opposition has dropped a planned 50 per cent renewable energy target. Federal Labor would be wise to do the same, because things will only get tougher. Retail electricity prices have more than doubled in the past 10 years, and it is a reasonable assumption they will be higher still by the time of the 2019 election. The energy supply will be even less reliable, particularly in SA and Labor-held Victoria where the coal-fired Hazelwood power station is about to close.
Never mind saving the planet, Bill Shorten needs to save himself from a policy that will cruel his chances of winning the election as surely as the stench of a carbon tax did for his predecessor in 2013. It would be a mistake to imagine the Turnbull government will be any less relentless in highlighting the policy difference than Tony Abbott’s opposition. Josh Frydenberg, the first minister to be responsible for both environment and energy, quickly got the measure of Labor’s weakness and has been given licence by the Prime Minster to ride the issue hard.
Less than a fortnight after the blackout that shut down virtually the whole of SA last September, Turnbull used an address to a Minerals Council dinner to attack the “political claptrap” that had dominated the policy debate. Energy must not just be clean, it must be affordable and reliable. It is a technological and engineering challenge, not an ideological battleground.
Stepping beyond the rhetoric, however, presents some difficult challenges for the federal government, which finds itself fenced in by ill-designed policies — state and federal — that prevent the energy market operating efficiently. State-driven moratoriums on coal-seam gas extraction in NSW and Victoria have pushed an obvious source of low-emission back-up power out of the market. The demonisation of coal has been embraced by the Left, which no longer fights for productive jobs and has turned its back on progress.
The best way out of this renewable energy nightmare is to adopt a technology-neutral approach to energy supply and emissions reduction. Without the distortions of the RET the most efficient way to reduce emissions would be to reopen and retrofit existing coal-fired power stations, use gas for additional capacity, and start planning high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fired power plants using ultra-supercritical technology.
Investors, however, will demand a level playing field, rather than one that slopes towards wind and solar. We should be cautious about calling for subsidies. Much better to undo the complicated idiocy that created this tangled market in the first place.