South Australia's storm blackout has turned into a really ugly fight over renewable energy

A sacred cow? Photo: Martin Ollman/Getty Images

The devastation wrought across South Australia by a 1-in-50-years storm that brought wind gusts exceeding 120km/h and left the state without power for at least 12 hours on Wednesday night was ignored yesterday in favour of a bitter political fight over the state’s renewable energy policy.

Even while the entire state was in the dark, Turnbull government MPs, including energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg, and the PM himself, were talking about the state’s “unrealistic” renewable energy target and calling for change.

Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon also attempted to link the blackout to renewable energy, saying “This has not been sensible, it has been reckless — we have relied too much on wind rather than base load renewables”.

Deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce blamed wind power saying it “wasn’t working too well last night, because they had a blackout”.

But the problem was high winds that blew down more than 20 transmission towers, leading to the shutdown to protect the integrity of the power system nationally.

While Frydenberg conceded that the weather caused of the problem, but on ABC TV on Wednesday night, the minister said “questions are raised by the virtue of the increasing amount of renewables”.

Frydenberg, who is both energy and environment minister, again focused on concerns about renewable energy during an interview on ABC radio’s AM program on Thursday, saying the Commonwealth’s target of 23.5% was the only one that was “realistic”.

Here’s what he said:

But the states pursuing these unrealistic renewable energy targets – and it’s not just South Australia. They have a 50% target by 2025. Victoria has a 40% target in the same period – and they currently are only at 12 per cent. And then you go to Queensland, which has a 50% target and they only currently have around 4%.

So these are unrealistic state-based targets. And my job is to try to bring the states to the table with the Commonwealth to see if we can harmonise the system across the board, because it’s only really the Commonwealth, with its 23.5% target, which is really realistic.

The minister wants to hold a summit with his state counterparts on the issue to try and standardise the approach. Several weeks ago, after supply problems caused a massive spike in electricity prices in South Australia in July, Frydenberg said there was an urgent need for reform of the electricity market to make it more reliable and affordable.

Renewable energy currently supplies 41% of South Australia’s power.

Outspoken Queensland MP George Christensen, a Coalition backbencher, used the blackout to accuse wind power of being useless:

The sudden drop at around 4.30pm is when the network shut down.

Defending their industry today, advocacy group the Australian Wind Alliance said wind power was supplying half the state’s needs when the storm tripped the network.

Spokesperson Andrew Bray said blaming renewables for the blackout was unfounded and irresponsible.

“Nick Xenophon started making claims yesterday before he bothered to check the facts. He was totally wrong to claim that South Australia’s reliance on renewable energy was to blame,” he said.

“At a time when South Australians are struggling without power, this kind of behaviour is grossly opportunistic.

“The failure of the network was a weather event, pure and simple. Extreme weather knocked out 23 transmission pylons. Storms of this magnitude will knock out the power network no matter what the source of power is.”

Meanwhile, the federal government appears to be setting the scene for a showdown with the states after prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called the blackout a “wake-up call” for “completely unrealistic” renewable energy targets by the states.

He accused state premiers of “political gamesmanship” in their renewable targets.

“Let’s end the ideology, focus on clear renewable target. The federal government has one as you know, 23.5% is our target,” Turnbull said.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the government’s comments were “disgraceful”.

“If they want to play the blame game, surely isn’t it appropriate to wait until all the houses have their power back on, until we know the bill, until we know what’s happened?” he said.

South Australia’s Labor premier, Jay Weatherill, said he was “on the same page” with the PM and energy minister, but added Barnaby Joyce “hates windfarms and he decided to play politics with the crisis”.

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