SA Blackout: From name-calling to … report writing

The political and cultural battle around the  South Australian blackout of 28 September is moving from the ‘(s)pinning-the-blame’ phase to the ‘await the verdicts of the “independent” reports’ phase.  All available insults have been traded, and other issues will be popping up on the radar imminently.  For example, a stoush over the proposed gay marriage plebiscite is due when parliament resumes, with Labor saying they’ll kill it off. Barring further sudden developments, the issue will move further inside the newspapers, and flare up intermittently over the coming months.

A confected battle?
In the hours and days since the blackout state level politicians (especially South Australia, Victoria and Queensland Labor government ministers)  have traded blows with Federal Liberals and Nationals.  The former have accused the latter of pushing an anti-renewables agenda (even a ‘jihad’), while the Federals have attempted to frame the states’ appetite for renewables as  ‘ideological’ and ‘impractical’.  Journalists of the same view (Andrew, Chris etc)  have joined in with enthusiasm of course. So far, so expected.

Guardian journalist Katherine Murphy observes that current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had over the past months, made very supportive noises over the role of the states’ renewables policies, only to pivot after the blackout. While they acknowledged the role of the storm in bringing down power lines, they also sought to create question marks over renewables.  Given the deposed-for-a-year Tony Abbott’s attempts at self-rehabilitation of late, Murphy wonders if there might be an ulterior motive-

“If you were a deeply cynical person, you’d say that maximising a problem, setting off a mini culture war, gives the Australian something to write about on page one other than Tony’s Quadrant tour.”

Meanwhile, the release of a preliminary report of the Australian Electricity Market Operator on Wednesday 5th October did precisely nothing to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.  The facts in the report were open enough to interpretation from any given angle, as anyone who has ever witnessed these battles would have known in advance.

By the end of the week, the name-calling was replaced – or supplemented- with the favoured device for issue containment – meetings and the commissioning of reports.

Meetings of minds
The American humourist Dave Barry once observed that “Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate.”

The South Australian government called a summit of experts, which took place on Thursday 6th in Adelaide.  Shepherd (2016) quotes the South Australian Climate Change Minister as saying the purpose was to “bring the science behind renewables to the table- and dispel misconceptions” ahead of the Council of Australian Governments Energy Council meeting in Melbourne on Friday 7th.    He continued “It’s important that we have a fact-based discussion around how we make our energy system more secure, cheaper and cleaner” (note the order of priorities given there).

The meeting was attended by Alan Finkel (chief scientist), Ross Garnaut (economist who has spent the last ten years writing and arguing for a carbon price, which seems far distant right now), John Hewson (former Liberal leader and proponent of renewables), Lara Olsen (Tesla) and Amanda McKenzie of the Clean Energy Council (Evans, 2016a).

This meeting can basically be seen as an attempt to simultaneously stiffen the resolve of the SA government and also signal to other state governments, the Federal government and the public that South Australia’s government under Jay Weatherill is not going to back down.

On Friday an extraordinary meeting of COAG Energy Council took place, having been called by its chair, Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg.  Victorian Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio had labelled it a ‘political stunt’ to protect Malcolm Turnbull (Morton, 2016).  There were public battles over what would and would not be on the agenda, with the Queensland energy minister keen that the Paris Agreement obligations (which the Australian Government basically can’t reach without upping its renewables ambition) be discussed.

The meeting of course did not lead to either the states backing down on the renewable energy targets that the Federal Government regards with displeasure, nor an agreement by the Federals to raise their ambition.  What did come of it? An agreement that the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel would – with two other as yet un-named people – produce an independent (has any review ever been called anything else?) review of Australia’s energy system.

The Finkel Review  will ‘review the National Electricity Market and provide federal and state energy ministers with a blueprint for energy security across the grid.’  It is charged with ‘devising a plan to ensure future energy security, affordability and sustainability as more renewable energy comes into the electricity system and more coal-fired power stations close.’ (Potter and Ludlow, 2016)

An interim report will be ready for the next COAG meeting (in December) with the full ‘blueprint’ released in the new year.  Inevitably this was spun by both sides as a victory.  Frydenberg said he was pleased that all ministers had agreed that their primary responsibility was to ensure the “security, reliability and affordability” of the energy system, (Holderhead, 2016) while SA’s Tom Koutsantonis saying that ‘the most important outcome was the federal government’s acceptance that “the Paris agreement requires the merging of climate policy and energy policy. That is a big first step.”’ (Potter and Ludlow, 2016)

A tsunami of reports
There is a flurry of reports coming, which will be grist for political and journalistic mills.  The next one is on 19th October, when the Australian Electricity Market Operator releases a further interim report (and a further-final one in the new year).

At some point a South Australian review, led by former police commissioner Gary Burns will be released: The Australian’s  Nick Cater wants a Royal Commission (Cater, 2016). There are also various AEMC/AEMO/AER reports, but they will be for the geeks who read and enjoy Reneweconomy. The headline grabbers will be two reports by Finkel et al.

Meanwhile, the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood argues that to be effective

“Primary responsibility must rest with the federal government to deliver a credible scalable climate policy. Much can then flow from there, including agreement from states and territories to truly act in the spirit of national coordination to which they committed.”

Does anyone expect this to happen?  How? Why?  Who is the ‘historical actor’ who create and sustain the conditions for the much-vaunted ‘co-operative federalism’ that business [Australian Energy Council; The Australian Industry Group; Business Council of Australia; Clean Energy Council; Energy Consumers Australia; Energy Efficiency Council; Energy Networks Association; Energy Users Association of Australia] says it wants? Answers on a post-card to the usual place….

What next and final observations
This debate is sort of a re-run of the early 2000s battles over cliamte change in at least three ways. Firstly, the Federal government refusal to be ‘pushed around’ by international commitments; then it was Kyoto, now it is Paris.  Secondly (ritualistic) invocation of a ‘bigger frame’ to try to undercut its critics and paint them as woolly and unreliable; then it was ‘the national interest’, now it is ‘energy security’ (which, to be fair, is a more concrete concept!).  Finally, the upward pressure from state governments unwilling to be quiescent. Then it was on emissions trading – a state-led ‘bottom up’ process was overtaken by the Howard government’s Shergold Report and by Kevin Rudd’s promises.  Now it is on renewable energy. It is harder to see an easy fix for the Federal government this time, but anyone who has been following Australian climate politics is wary (and weary) of making predictions – the most improbable things keep happening (Al and Clive, anyone?).

What will we see in the longer term?  Boff, who knows? Perhaps some sort of Energy Intensity Scheme (i.e. a, gasp, price on carbon) is on the cards, though there are formidable veto players in the game.  After the COAG meeting on Friday SA energy minister Tom Koutsantonis said there’d been a ‘constructive discussion” about it, and –crucially – his Federal counterpart Josh Frydenberg refused to rule it out (Holderhead, 2016).  It will be interesting to see if/how the intransigents of the Liberal Party respond to that.

Jay Weatherill appears to be in a pretty vulnerable position (Evans, 2016b).  Each and every problem with SA energy provision will now be an opportunity for his critics to “pile on” the pressure. And problems invariably happen with large technical systems.  A brownout during peak energy demand, for example on day four of a heatwave with air conditioner failings leading to deaths or hospitalisations of the elderly will see ‘Blood on his hands’ style headlines.  Events, dear boy, events

The UNFCCC meeting coming up in Marrakech in November will be used to –by domestic and international actors – to point out that the Australian Government lacks a plausible plan to meet its Paris commitment. What effect, if any, will that have? Who knows.  However, given the absence of any likely Renewable Energy Target beyond 2020, at least under the current Federal Government, the states will continue ‘not to wait,’ no matter what policy prescriptions emerge. This will pile the pressure on Canberra, and maybe there will be a decision within the Coalition that a more, ahem, pugilistic, leader is required?

Cater, N. 2016. Lights are back on but is anybody in power home. The Advertiser, 8 October, p.38.

Evans, 2016a. Big Questions about NEM in the wake of blackout: Garnaut. The Australian Financial Review, 7 October, p.11.

Evans, S. 2016b. Is this the start of the end for Weatherill? The Australian Financial Review, 8-9 October, p.15.

Holderhead, S. 2016. Bright spark reviews nation’s energy grid. The Advertiser, 8 October, p.2.

Morton, A. 2016. Emergency Ministers Meeting after SA blackout a ‘political stunt’, says Lily D’Ambrosio.  Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October.

Murphy, K. 2016. Once the storm settles the real picture emerges of government’s energy goals. The Guardian, 7 October.

Potter, B. and Ludlow, M. 2016. Finkel to lead electricity review. The Australian Financial Review, 8-9 October, p.5.

Shepherd, T. 2016.  High-powered gathering to decide watt’s what. The Advertiser, 6 October, p.6.

Wood, T. 2016. Climate change must be part of Australia’s electricity system review. The Conversation, 8 October.

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