Adelaide and energy systems have one thing in common – they rarely dominate the news agenda in Australia. However, twice in the past three months they have been front and centre. That reveals something interesting about the ‘framing battles’ taking place over renewable energy and whose vision for Australia’s future will win.
Price spike and blackouts
In July spot prices for electricity in South Australia briefly went through the roof. While some (mostly Murdoch-based) media and commentators were extremely quick to blame this on the high levels of renewable energy generation in Australia, the truth was a) different and b) more complicated, as was later reported. And yes, as those among us old enough to remember Enron’s shenanigans in California 15 years ago, there was sharp practice afoot too.
Spot prices don’t really have a visceral impact though. According to Reneweconomy, one energy company CEO ‘that “99.999 per cent” of customers would not have been required to pay the higher electricity prices energy bill may be a little higher than you’d expected’ (and most businesses hedge against this sort of thing) but it doesn’t compare to the lights suddenly going out as they did all across South Australia as they did yesterday.
The actual cause of the blackout is well explained by a variety of experts asked to comment by The Conversation (full disclosure: I’ve written for the Conversation, and I think it’s brilliant)
While the price spike fight was a straightforward “renewables proponents versus those who would like to slow/stop/reverse the use of renewable energy” fight, the blackout battle is already more nuanced. As well as pro-and-anti renewables advocates there are also those who see the event as an opportunity to press for distributed energy.
Propagating an opinion about any contentious event that has affected people is a tricky. Too soon and you’re accused of ‘insensitivity’, too late and the relentless news cycle, with all the attention-span of a goldfish that hasn’t been taking its Ritalin, has moved on.
Some people – Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce independent senator Nick Xenophon and State Liberals leader Stephen Marshall – were quick off the mark. In their eagerness, they may have mis-timed it. Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made the point
“If the Greens had blamed, while a bushfire was underway, if they had talked about climate change, Barnaby Joyce would have been all over them like a rash, calling them un-Australian and all the rest of the nonsense, yet here we have the conservatives trying to play politics about renewable energy when this is a storm, it is the weather blowing over towers,”
The slightly more sophisticated version that admits extreme weather was the cause of the blackout but still tries to mobilise the fear and uncertainty that it caused as part of the ‘slow down the states in their push for increased renewables’ campaign. In this camp you will find Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – “What we know so far is that there was an extreme weather event that damaged a number of transmission line assets knocking over towers and lines, and that was the immediate cause of the blackout.” (source) and Environment Minister Josh Frydenburg, who had also been clear on the actual causes of the July price spike.
While admitting the present crisis is not caused by renewables, they still want to take the opportunity to try to de-legitimise the states’ renewables’ goals. Turnbull said that
it was time to stop the “political gamesmanship” between the states that has seen Queensland set a 50% renewable target when renewables account for only 4.5% of its mix currently.
“What’s the pathway to achieve that? Very hard to see it. It’s a political or ideological statement…. We’ve got to recognise that energy security is the key priority and targeting lower emissions is very important but it must be consistent with energy security.”
This antipathy to renewables should also be seen in the context of ongoing State-Federal government tensions on these issues. In the 2000s, while Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was resolutely blocking action on emissions reductions, Labor-led states began work on a states-based emissions reduction scheme instead. This was part of the pressure that forced Howard into a late-2006 U-turn, with both parties fighting the 2007 Federal election with an emissions trading scheme in their manifestos. The rest is history… A similar dynamic is at play now, with Federal intransigence and outright hostility on a renewables target beyond 2020 being one of the factors behind ambitious action by states on the increase in renewables. The Federals simply don’t like being pushed around, forced into things that they don’t want to do.
What is interesting about this blackout though, is that it is also being used by proponents of distributed energy to boost their argument. This graphic, from here, captures that beautifully
Never let a serious crisis go to waste”
The use of events to try to shift the narrative about the proper place of technology is hardly new. When something goes “wrong”, there is an opportunity, as Raph Emanuel alludes to, to create a new ‘norm’.
For example, before World War 2, airships looked as if they might challenge heavier than air transport. Unfortunately for the industry, the (hydrogen-based) Hindenburg went up in flames at “the worst possible time to explode”, and so fixed the technology in the public mind as extremely dangerous.
If a technology doesn’t “fit” with a moral cosmology – a view of how the world ‘should be’- its progress slowed or even stalled. My favourite example of this is the case of hookworm. As Deborah Stone writes, (1989)
“Bringing a condition under human control often poses a challenge to old hierarchies of wealth, privilege, or status. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many poor rural whites in the South were afflicted with a chronic sickness later discovered to be caused by the hookworm parasite. People with the disease were listless and eventually became slow-witted. Popular belief held that the condition reflected the laziness and lax moral character of the victims. When Charles Stiles demonstrated in 1902 that hookworm was the cause and that the disease could easily be cured with a cheap medicine, he was widely ridiculed in the press for claiming to have discovered the “germ of laziness.” The discovery was resisted because it meant that southern elites had to stop blaming “poor white trash” for their laziness and stupidity and stop congratulating themselves for their superior ability to work hard and think fast – a supposed superiority that served to justify political hierarchy.”
Similar battles between technologies get fought all the time, whether it is over the legitimacy of nuclear power in the Netherlands and the UK, or the introduction of LED lighting and biofuels.
With our theory heads on, we should always remember that the appraisal of technology is not a ‘neutral’ process.
With our observers-of-current-events heads on, we can see increasingly desperate attempts by advocates of the status quo – large, centralised (fossil fuel-based) electricity generation to blame any and all problems on the insurgent technology. As the carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, and the ‘1 in 50 year’ events happen more and more frequently, it will be a perverse kind of wonderful to watch.