As South Australia blacked out, PM's office was told renewable power was not to blame

Public servants' 'misinformation' warning seemingly set aside for politics

Traditional lattice pylons in the UK countryside

Following last year's megastorm and blackout in South Australia, Vulture South opined that the events had nothing to do with the state's use of wind power. Now, a freedom of information release reveals the government was advised to that effect before ministers started to cast blame.

Left-of-centre think tank the Australia Institute made a freedom of information request, FOI/2016/178, which makes it clear that the very first advice Canberra received about the blackouts blamed infrastructure damage.

Just after 7:00PM on 28 September, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) was told: “At 1618 AEST, all of South Australia suffered a blackout, most likely triggered by strong winds which have brought down transmission lines and pylons and lightning strikes”.

That advice never changed: a 5:00 AM teleconference on 29 September heard this from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO): “the generation mix (ie renewable or fossil fuel) was not to blame for yesterday’s events – it was the loss of 1000 MW of power in such a short space of time as transmission lines fell over”.

The e-mail describes “unprecedented” damage to the network that was “bigger than any other event in Australia”.

The document also identifies two system restart generators whose unavailability made the blackouts last longer than should have been the case:

“Normally this would involve gas fired power but for unknown reasons both Quarantine and Mintaro stations were not available so the restart relied on the Heywood interconnect.”

It's also clear that public servants were concerned that the blackout would be politicised. On the evening of 28 September, PMC assistant secretary Kelly Pearce wrote:

“Thanks helpful if we can have some information on the cause and why the system responds as it did, I listened to the Premier who repeatedly indicated the outage is not generation related, but Some are suggesting related to renewables” [sic].

“I'm concerned that if the reason is because the system shut down to protect itself and it is not a supply issue we do not repeat misinformation”.

Australia's deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce later told media that wind power “wasn't working too well last night, because they had blackout”, and on 29 September – well after his office had its advice – prime minister Malcolm Turnbull supported his deputy's position.

The PM said the aggressive shift to renewables had “strained the network”, and on the evening of 29 September told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's 730 program “intermittent renewables do pose real challenges”.

And now?

The federal government has consistently dragged out the South Australian blackouts to denigrate renewable energy, criticise renewable energy's role and push for a national renewable energy target, rather than letting States set their own goals.

Over the weekend, the PM doubled down, calling the South Australian energy mix a “failed ideological experiment”, in spite of 18 industry, union and civil society groups asking for the political jockeying to end.

“The result of unrealistic state-based targets has been huge power bills for families and businesses and unreliable supply”, the PM said in the statement.

The government already has a blueprint available to it, in the form of a preliminary review of the national electricity market from chief scientist Alan Finkel.

The governemnt is also conducting a Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market. Submissions to that Review's preliminary report close on February 21st. ®

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