Turnbull uses South Australian blackout to push for uniformity on renewables

Malcolm Turnbull speaking at the University of Tasmania’s School of Architecture and Design on Thursday. Scott Gelston/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull has seized on the massive South Australian power failure to condemn Labor states for aggressive attitudes to renewables and call for a nationwide target.

This is despite the fact that a spokesman for the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which is responsible for operating the national electricity market, said “the generation mix [in SA, which has a high proportion of renewables] was not a factor”.

Some politicians, reporters and commentators leapt in to blame renewables, with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce saying wind power “doesn’t work when there’s no wind and it doesn’t work when it’s excessive wind … it obviously wasn’t working too well last night because they had a blackout”.

Turnbull acknowledged that the “immediate cause of the blackout” was “an extreme weather event” that knocked over more than 20 towers and lines. But he said the SA event was a wake-up call, and has told Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg to call together energy ministers.

Turnbull said there was no doubt that heavy reliance on intermittent renewables “does place very different strains and pressures on a grid than reliance on traditional base load power”.

“Energy security should always be the key priority,” 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.” He said this was not just SA but the same observation could be made about Queensland and Victoria.

Turnbull said the federal and state energy ministers’ meeting would precede his own discussion with premiers “to ensure that we move towards a national renewables target”.

The federal government has a renewable target for large-scale generation of 23.5% by 2020.

Turnbull said the political gamesmanship between the states should be stopped.

The AEMO said in a statement that “a severe storm damaged transmission and distribution electricity assets in South Australia, leading to a state-wide power outage.

"Initial investigations have identified the root cause of the event is likely to be the multiple loss of 275 kilovolt (kV) power lines during severe storm activity in the state.

"These transmission lines form part of the backbone of South Australia’s power system and support supply and generation north of Adelaide. The reason why a cascading failure of the remainder of the South Australia network occurred is still to be identified and is subject to further investigation.”

Frydenberg said energy ministers would be briefed by the AEMO and other relevant parties about what had happened in SA and the lessons not just for that state but across the national electricity market.

Frydenberg said: “Let me be absolutely clear – energy security is this government’s number-one priority. We must keep the lights on.

"And while we are transitioning to a lower emissions future, we will not compromise on energy security. So we will take all practical measures to ensure that energy is secure and protected across the country and we will be asking some very hard questions of the energy operator as to why this event occurred and how we can ensure it not happen again,” Frydenberg said.

South Australian senator Nick Xenophon said: “One of the key questions that I think needs to be asked is: if we had more thermal generators in play at the time and a lesser reliance on intermittent renewable capacity, whether that would have made a difference in terms of the way the system cascaded to a shutdown in the way that it did.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was “disgraceful the conservatives are playing politics with a natural disaster”. He said it had been “a super storm – a once-in-50-years storm”.

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