Last week the entire state of South Australia suffered a power outage on the afternoon and evening of September 27, 2016. The strength of the storms, cyclonic in some areas, brought down 23 transmission towers. Floods followed. While many areas regained power within a few hours, parts of the state were without power for days.
Parliament itself was plunged into darkness before the generators kicked in. Ministers literally ran to the Cross Benchers asking if we could suspend the sitting due to a “code black” and our state emergency procedures well and truly kicked in. Along with candles, battery powered radios were taken out of cupboards and many remained in a state of vigilance as emergency network information was broadcast over the cold and difficult hours and days to come.
Around the state, communities coped as best they could with both the loss of amenities and the weather itself. Volunteers, workers, and communities rallied in the crisis.
These were extraordinary efforts in scenes where one couldn’t help feeling like an extra in some B-grade apocalyptic zombie movie. But while the community stayed calm, some politicians certainly carried on.
Not a single life was lost, traffic was in gridlock but road rage seemed non-existent. In my street, we divided up candles and checked on neighbours. Yet there on our (streamed online) 6.30 news was a real-life horror movie.
The witch-hunt on wind power had already begun.
Senator Nick Xenophon was one of the first out of the blocks in the race to specifically blame wind power. By the next news cycle, Senator Xenophon went to great lengths to ‘correct the record’ that he was actually a strong supporter of renewables — but with friends like that who needs enemies?
Well, the enemies came thick and fast too — from a party where the former Treasurer infamously railed against windfarms because he found them aesthetically ‘utterly offensive’. Prime Minister Turnbull forgot his past platitudes, piled on and took a swipe at South Australia’s renewables. Unsurprisingly, they were backed up by One Nation. Senator Pauline Hanson even had a Facebook square up in time for tea.
Of course, energy experts were already stating that even if coal-fired electricity were still being produced in SA, a similar shutdown would have occurred in the weather conditions — even as those Facebook squares and catchy media grabs were being crafted.
The Greens welcome appropriate independent reviews and investigations. But rather than jumping to conclusions in the midst of a weather crisis, we concentrated our efforts on keeping our communities safe and getting the state back to business.
There is a climate emergency across the globe, not just here in SA. The science is settled. We will see more frequent extreme weather events. Just as one swallow does not make a Spring, we don’t know whether the specific events of the past week would have occurred regardless of climate change. But we do know these type of events will occur more frequently in the future.
In this broader climate emergency, what we need is a war cabinet not a war of words.
Bring on an independent inquiry, not just into wind power, not just into the emergency response and not just into state power prices; put everything on the table. Have it include our preparedness for climate change, the role of renewables, the impact of the sale of ETSA, and also why we still haven’t gotten on with repowering Port Augusta.
Renewable energy think tank Beyond Zero Emissions has long demonstrated the opportunity for Port Augusta to become a renewable energy power hub.
Repowering Port Augusta is a five-year-in-the-making strategic plan. Taking advantage of our natural competitive advantage of abundant solar energy, it would enable South Australia to become a world leader in renewable energy, and Port Augusta would become a global hub for baseload solar power generation.
Better yet, it would create and keep jobs in the region.
Just last month, a solar thermal company announced that if they could build a large solar thermal plant in Port Augusta, five more could follow across the region. This would create hundreds of secure long term jobs, thousands more jobs in construction and provide on-demand, affordable, clean power for South Australians.
Premier Weatherill has recently announced that the State Government would soon tender to buy 75 per cent of the electricity needs to increase competition. The Government has also committed $24 million towards supporting local gas producers. Yet the cost of producing natural gas is sky-rocketing because once easily developed gas fields have been depleted, newer, more expensive ones must be developed.
It is critical there is financial support for a solar thermal power plant in Port Augusta, but there is a high risk that the State Government will use this tender for gas production.
That power is now in the Premier’s hands.