Current Issue #488

Batteries Included: Jay Weatherill on moving past the energy crisis

Batteries Included: Jay Weatherill on moving past the energy crisis

With the Tesla lithium ion battery to be switched on tomorrow, The Adelaide Review speaks to Premier Jay Weatherill about the recent energy crisis and his government’s response to it.

The eyes of the nation were on South Australia last summer after a number of blackouts hit the state. It was humiliating; a major state in a first-world country plunged into darkness. Perhaps even more embarrassing was the political debate over renewable energy that followed.

Since then, the state government has made global headlines with the world’s biggest battery — Tesla’s lithium ion battery outside of Jamestown — marked down to be operational as an emergency energy source by December 1, while back-up generators in Elizabeth and Lonsdale have been connected to the grid.

After the blackouts, Premier Jay Weatherill accused the national energy market of not looking after South Australia while certain members of the federal government, including the Prime Minister, blamed the blackouts on the state’s reliance on renewable energy. Nearly 50 per cent of South Australia’s energy is renewable and the coal-powered Port Augusta power station closed in May 2016.

Weatherill said while the statewide blackout of September 28, 2016 was a “dramatic day” it was over the summer — after further storms knocked out infrastructure on December 27 and in late January — that he decided action needed to be taken.

“The event that crystallised everything was the event on February 8, which was when Pelican Point wasn’t switched on and about 90,000 homes blacked out,” Weatherill tells The Adelaide Review. “It was sort of emerging over a period of time that all of these events seemed to have, although a number of them were caused by weather events, this was just manifestly a systems failure event where you had plenty of generation, but the market didn’t ask it to switch on and then 90,000 homes in South Australia were blacked out. It was one of those moments we realised that the national electricity market was just utterly failing South Australia.”

The Tesla mega lithium ion battery will be switched on this week

After February 9, the state government began to work on what would become the $550 million energy plan, which they released on March 14 of this year.

“We’ve got the world’s largest battery about to be switched on for Christmas, we’ve got our temporary generators in place, we’ve secured, through the temporary generators, our permanent solution, as well as the procurement for the solar thermal plant [in Port Augusta],” Weatherill says.

Why wait until February 9? After a summer of energy failures, Weatherill says the government came to a view that the national operator was not acting in South Australia’s best interest.

“By that point, even if a number of these things were to some degree coincidental to failures of essentially physical infrastructure, which was storm related, the problem was reputationally we couldn’t cope with another random event. Even if it was just another random event of nature, we couldn’t reputationally as a state continue to accept all of these things.”

The blackout of September 28 triggered a coal vs renewable energy debate. While South Australia was getting hit by storms and was without power, conservative commentators blamed the state’s reliance on renewable energy, which Weatherill says was wrong on a number of levels.

“Wouldn’t you wait for some evidence before you did that [blame renewables], especially people in senior cabinet positions like prime ministers? What makes it even worse is that we’ve seen the advice that was put in front of the Prime Minister and it contradicts that, so he was acting contrary to advice from the Australian Energy Market Operator, which was blaming the storm. I suppose the other thing that is particularly egregious about it is that while we were responding to a natural disaster, while emergency service workers were trying to repair infrastructure, while people were cleaning up storm damage, we had the Prime Minister of this country leading a really partisan political agenda.

“I can remember when we had some nasty bushfires here a year earlier. Tony Abbott came to town and we were in the midst of a massive brawl with him over the Hockey 2014 Budget, and he just gritted his teeth, stood next to me and smiled for the cameras because that’s what prime ministers do in times of national crisis; they exercise the function of leadership and they provide consolation and support to their constituent elements. Any state or territory, it doesn’t matter who is running the place, you don’t play politics in that situation. It was nothing less than a disgrace, and it was made all the worse by the fact they were just totally and utterly wrong.”

On the day of this interview, an ACOLA Report came out that said renewables could provide 50 per cent of this country’s energy reliably by 2030, which Weatherill says vindicates South Australia’s renewable push.

“When you get a guy like Elon Musk standing up and saying, ‘the South Australian government decided to take a risk and we wanted to partner with them to make a success of the policy agenda around renewable energy’, what that does is, for a fleeting moment, puts you on the international stage. It communicates to everyone around the world who has an ambition to try something new that here’s a government that’s trying to back you in if you’re prepared to put your neck on the line.”

And their necks are on the line. If significant blackouts hit this summer it will be a huge embarrassment for the state government. With the government failing to get its nuclear dump and bank tax over the line, a lot is riding on a blackout-free summer for the Weatherill government before the March election, which has already been disrupted by Nick Xenophon’s return to state politics.

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