EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Learning the lessons of SA power meltdown
, October 22, 2016
The storm that triggered the unprecedented complete blackout of South Australia’s electricity industry has inevitably focused attention on the state’s reliance on alternative energy: the cornerstone of SA Labor’s plan to make the state Australia’s greenest.
South Australia currently generates about 40 per cent of its electricity from wind and solar power, about twice the national average, by subsidising the construction of solar and wind farms, and by giving alternative energy priority over fossil fuel-fired power stations.
One of the transmission-line towers
that came down during SA's recent storms.
The consequence of this is that SA’s last remaining coal-fired power stations closed down last year, as well as the perfectly functional coalmine at Leigh Creek, in the north of the state, that supplied coal to power stations.
Because wind and solar power generation is inherently unreliable, being dependent on moderate wind and sunshine, and SA’s gas-fired power stations are incapable of backing up the state’s alternative energy supply, the state is dependent on importing electricity from Victoria, which generates most of its power from brown coal in the east of the state.
This has to be sent hundreds of kilometres across Victoria, then across South Australia, to make up the shortfall in SA’s electricity requirements.
When federal critics suggested that SA’s experiment with alternative energy had failed, they were immediately denounced by the State Premier, Jay Weatherill, for exploiting the crisis for partisan political purposes. He said it was a catastrophic climate event that would have caused blackouts regardless, and was unrelated to the state’s alternative energy policy.
Yet the fact remains that for years South Australian governments have encouraged the development of wind and solar energy to the point that base-load power stations using coal and gas have become uneconomical to own and run, and South Australia is reliant on imported power from Victoria, carried on high-voltage power lines over long distances.
Each of these facts has made the state’s power supply more vulnerable to disruption by storms, lightning strikes and extreme climate events.
It is ironical, if not bizarre, that South Australia’s clean and green credentials are based on the fact that it knowingly acquires base-load power from Victoria, which generates most of its power from coal, the same source that has recently been shut down in South Australia!
What can be done? The immediate response is expected to be to add more reliable base-load capacity to the system by building more interconnectors with Victoria and New South Wales (which also relies on coal-fired power stations).
To do this will cost a lot more money, in a state where electricity prices are already the highest in the land as a result of the government’s alternative energy policy.
The consequences of South Australia’s high price of electricity are often misunderstood. It is not only households – particularly those on limited incomes – that are affected. The availability of low-cost electricity is vital for the state’s struggling manufacturing industries, which provide many of the best jobs in the state.
It is naive to claim that South Australia does not need manufacturing and mining industries, or that it can rely on services such as education, tourism and finance.
The state’s population is too low and its geographic location prevents it attracting service industries, the bulk of which are located in the eastern states where the bulk of Australia’s population lives.
The foundation of South Australia’s prosperity since the Playford era was the establishment of strong manufacturing and mining sectors, based on the availability of low-cost power, enabling South Australia to attract large industries and to compete with other states.
This is rapidly being lost, with the closure of the state’s only operational coalmine, power stations, white goods manufacturing and the shutdown of its auto manufacturing industry.
A $30 billion expansion plan for the huge Roxby Downs mine in the north of the state was shelved due to low mineral prices; but soaring electricity prices will delay or prevent its expansion.
The present State Government, having convinced itself and its supporters of the necessity to end the use of fossil fuels, seems incapable of changing direction.
The issues raised by the SA power meltdown are relevant across Australia. Federal Labor Leader Bill Shorten has promised to repeat South Australia’s emissions regime nationally, while in Queensland, the Palaszczuk Government has promised wholesale cuts to carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite repeated claims by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based on computer modelling, of alarming rises in the earth’s temperature due to CO2, there has been no significant rise in global temperatures for almost 20 years. It is time for the issue to be determined by facts, rather than alarmist propaganda.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.