Forecast: political storm over energy



Summer is here, and so is the political spin about blackouts. This year, with a record November heatwave in Victoria and a press gallery hypersensitised to energy politics, the blame game started early — well before anything has actually gone wrong.

Greg Foyster cartoonTom Elliott, a 3AW broadcaster of the gut-instinct school, kicked it off in September. 'I hope we suffer from a giant, statewide blackout on a super hot day this coming summer,' he declared on his blog. A few hours in the sobering darkness, he argued, would bolster the case for building nuclear power, lifting Victoria's gas ban, and even lowering immigration.

Think tank the Australia Institute countered last month with a report pointing out that 14 percent of coal and gas fired generation failed — some from overheating — during the February 2017 heatwave.

Then last Friday, when the official opening of the Tesla battery in South Australia coincided with local power outages from overnight storms, the The Australian connected the two with the headline 'Blackouts welcome Tesla mega-battery'.

Why the preemptive fuss? Because what happens this summer may well determine the trajectory of Australia's future energy supply for many, many years.

Right now two narratives are jostling for dominance. One is Turnbull's 'energy security' frame, with the tangible example of blackouts. The other is climate change, expressed in extreme weather events like heatwaves and bushfires.

As the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) noted in its summer readiness report, both these problems peak during December to February, and they're related: 'Summer, across all of Australia except Tasmania, is the period of highest energy usage. It is also the period when this level of demand, high temperatures, and climatic events like bushfires and storms place the power system at highest stress and make it most prone to failure.'


"Like warm and cold air colliding to create a towering cumulus cloud, powerful forces are gathering for a political storm over energy policy in coming months. The spin will screech. The lies will lash our ears."


Thus the cause of any summer blackout will be open to interpretation. One side could say there wasn't enough electricity supply due to the recent closure of coal-fired power stations. The other could say climate change was the underlying driver of an unprecedented heatwave, bushfire or storm that overwhelmed the grid.

Unravelling the facts could take weeks. In the meantime, the public will make up their minds in hours or days, just as they did after the statewide blackout in South Australia in September 2016. And this summer, the maelstrom of misinformation will be even worse and the outcome even more crucial for clean energy. There are three key reasons.

First, the politics. South Australia has an election in March next year and Victoria in November. Both currently have progressive Labor governments that have been championing renewable energy and criticising inadequate federal climate policy. Both are also, as AEMO's report warns, the states with the highest likelihood of more hot days and longer heatwaves this summer.

A blackout would be a boon to the federal Coalition, which has been campaigning on energy prices all year, and painting state renewable targets as irresponsible. (The irony is that any electricity shortfall is also the result of a freeze on investment in new renewable energy supply during the Abbott years.) Turnbull's rhetoric about energy 'security' and 'reliability' flips the focus from pollution reduction — which helps Labor — to prices and blackouts, both fear-based conservative frames.

Second, this will be a summer of extraordinary firsts for our electricity system. In March, Australia's oldest and dirtiest power station closed. This month, the largest lithium ion battery in the world was switched on in South Australia. The market operator described the technology as 'unprecedented'.

As if that weren't novel enough, the most critical part of AEMO's summer readiness plan is 'demand response', which involves incentivising businesses and households to cut their electricity use during peak periods. It's worked overseas, but hasn't been tried in Australia at such a large scale, and it's being rolled out with haste. What could go wrong?

Other preparations for this summer include firing up previously mothballed gas plants and putting diesel generators on standby. Even though these are stopgap measures until additional wind and solar comes online, the media will still frame this summer a 'test case' for grid 2.0.

If something stuffs up, the federal Coalition can justify their go-slow approach on renewables through the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). The Labor states are currently skeptical and resistant, but who knows? A major blackout could force them to reevaluate their position.

On the other hand, if the energy system copes well, the focus may shift back to the federal Coalition's political intransigence on climate and energy policy, especially with modelling on the NEG due in April. A catastrophic heatwave or bushfire will amplify concern about climate change, which also hurts the federal Coalition and reinforces the urgent need to shift from coal and gas to renewables.

Third, this summer will be the final chance for a new coal-fired power station in Australia. Ever.

As the Finkel review pointed out (and many other studies have reinforced), wind and solar are now cheaper to build than coal or gas in many circumstances. The only chance for new coal is government support to the tune of billions of dollars, and the only way that will happen is disproportionate hysteria about blackouts to justify the enormous cost.

If there's the slightest glitch at any wind or solar farm this summer, we can expect the Minerals Council to howl about the lack of 'baseload' power, and then make a final, desperate pitch for its pet project — an oxymoronic 'clean coal' power station. Why? Because it's now or never.

Like warm and cold air colliding to create a towering cumulus cloud, powerful forces are gathering for a political storm over energy policy in coming months. The spin will screech. The lies will lash our ears. Long-held policy positions, once thought stable, will buckle under stress. Many of us may wish we'd constructed underground bunkers to escape the unbearable racket emanating from Canberra.

Only later, when the bluster dies down and everyone crawls out of hiding, will we be able to assess the damage.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, energy


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The boom in natural gas and oil from U.S. shale is due to deregulation of burdensome Government regulations included in the most important domestic reform President Trump’s new America first energy policy of energy dominance. For more on energy dominance watch energy expert Dr.Daniel Fine’s great lecture on the subject here ->
Will Fine | 08 December 2017

It's an interesting exercise to watch the various interest groups jockeying to present their perspectives when they feel the future of their industry is under threat. The opportunity to use 'worst case scenarios' to bolster arguments is being used to good effect. I wonder how many of the participants in the debate were Boy Scouts?
Paddy Byers | 12 December 2017

It is good to see a challenge to the nonsense being put about by conservative politicians that SA's blackouts were due to an over reliance on alternative energy sources. The winds that knocked over pylons would have caused blackouts whether the cables were carrying electricity generated from polluting fossil fuels or clean, cheap, renewable and sustainable energy sources. It is urgent that we opt for the second alternative.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 13 December 2017

Morrison and Joyce enjoyed passing a lump of coal around in Parliament, but the electors will have the last laugh at the next Federal election. The Conservatives will be dropped like hot coals! President Macron has banned drilling for oil and gas in France. What a contrast to Malcolm Turnbull, who was once thought to be in favour of Australia moving quickly to renewables! Pro-coal national leaders will make their countries poorer, as the future lies in clean green renewables.
Grant Allen | 22 December 2017