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Turnbull turns South Australia crisis into row over renewables

Malcolm Turnbull said what happened in South Australia should be a ‘wake-up call’. Scott Gelston/AAP

Maybe it was because he was in Tasmania and somewhat out of things. Or perhaps he was so intent on the political point he was able to make that he didn’t think the situation through.

For whatever reason, Malcolm Turnbull’s comments on the South Australian weather and power crisis at his Thursday news conference were notable for what they didn’t say.

Normally leaders drip sympathy for those affected by natural disasters. Turnbull paid tribute to the emergency services workers and those restoring power. But at no point did the Prime Minister express solidarity with ordinary South Australians. He was just anxious to get onto his argument about renewables.

The federal government has a new slogan. “We must keep the lights on.”

Indeed. First, however, let’s be clear why, according to what the experts say, the South Australian lights went off in such spectacular fashion. A massive storm tore out towers and brought down lines; lightning hit a power station. There was a “cascading failure” through the system, which shut down in self-protection.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) says the reason for the “cascading failure” of the network is still to be identified. But it declares the mix between renewables and non-renewables was not a factor.

Turnbull acknowledged that the extreme weather event was “the immediate cause of the blackout”.

But he said what happened in SA should be a “wake up call”.

Answering a question on whether SA’s push into renewables (which provide 41% of the state’s power) bore any responsibility for the blackout, he used the opportunity to attack Labor states for being too wedded to renewables, and urged national uniformity of targets.

In Turnbull style, he jumped into action: state energy ministers are to meet with federal minister Josh Frydenberg to consider not just the blackout but wider issues; Turnbull will have discussions with premiers “to ensure that we move towards a national renewables target”.

Movement to renewables is highly desirable, but they do also raise questions in terms of electricity costs, feasibility of targets and reliability of supply.

There have been particular problems in the past with the SA electricity system, leading to very high prices.

Frydenberg also noted the impact for investment of the patchwork of targets. “It means that it is incentivising investment in particular states which may not be the most efficient allocation of resources to get the best possible renewable energy investment and of course environmental outcome.”

All these issues need to be carefully considered.

But the federal government’s morphing of the crisis caused by the mega storm with the issues around renewables, and the sharpness of Turnbull’s attack on Labor states, smacked of a heavy overlay of politics.

While his emphasis on the importance of energy security and his argument about the need for more co-ordination of targets are valid, his tone on renewables was out of sync with what we understand to be his general position on climate and related issues. It is the latest example of Turnbull not sounding like Turnbull.

Renewables and climate change are among the ideological - and sometimes emotional - triggers of current politics. Remember the abhorrence Joe Hockey had for the sight of wind farms near Canberra. When these issues arise, politicians and commentators alike jump in to score points in face of evidence or before the evidence is in. That has been the case with the SA event.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was quick to lay blame on wind power, which accounts for most of SA’s renewable energy, prompting SA Premier Jay Weatherill to accuse him of a jihad against it.

Well, yes and no. Even Joyce can tolerate wind power when it brings some political benefit. NSW’s largest wind farm is being constructed in his electorate. He boasted earlier this year: “The White Rock Wind Farm will put New England on the map as a national leader in renewable energy production and drive local jobs and economic activity through the construction phase.”

On another part of the political spectrum Greens Adam Bandt on Thursday was defaulting to finger climate change. “The events in South Australia over the last few hours are a wake-up call for this country that we need to get global warming under control and move more quickly to renewable energy,” Bandt said.

Accusing Turnbull of “cravenly submitted to the conservative rump of his party”, Bandt said “a true leader would stand up and say that the events in South Australia remind us of the need to make sure that fewer of these storms happen in the future”.

While the politicians score points, spare thought for those hit by the storm. For many of them, being without power will be only one way in which they are affected and not necessarily the worst either.

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