South Australia’s Blackout and the Climate Debate.

Since September of last year, here in Australia, the debate regarding climate change and renewable energy has hotted up. First of all to give you all a bit of background.

On Wednesday evening, the 28th of September 2016, a severe storm system passed through South Australia causing a state-wide blackout. The storm of words and accusations that resulted focused on whether the push by the South Australian government to move towards renewable sources of energy was to blame. Premier Jay Weatherill was quick to point out that the latest blackout, which saw the entire state plunged into darkness, was a “weather event”, not a “renewable energy event” but it has drawn attention to issues with the state’s electricity network.

The state gets 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy but there are now concerns wind and solar will not be enough to provide reliable electricity. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, weighed into the debate saying that several state Labor governments — not just in SA — had set “extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic” targets for renewable energy use.

Mr Weatherill said the blackout appeared to be related to severe “almost cyclonic force winds” and 80,000 lightning strikes that battered the state about 3.48pm. The strong winds and lightning strikes damaged power transmission towers, mainly in the mid-north of the state. ElectraNet, which owns the transmission towers, said 23 towers appeared to have been damaged, including three out of the four transmission lines moving power between Adelaide and the north of South Australia.

The damage triggered an automatic cut at the interconnector, which as the name suggests, links South Australia and Victoria. It allows the states to share electricity, and acts like a large surge protector, which automatically cuts off supply if there is a fault in the system to protect the entire system from being damaged. South Australia gets its electricity from wind, solar and gas but no longer has coal power after Alinta’s Northern Power Station and Playford A station at Port Augusta closed in May.

At the time, Australian Energy Council chief executive Matthew Warren said the closure would mean the state would need to rely on renewable energy and the interconnector that provides electricity from Victoria for base-load power. “The reality for South Australians is that we’re in uncharted waters,” Mr Warren said in May. “There’s an increased level of risk that we really haven’t seen before anywhere in the world, so it doesn’t mean we’ll have more blackouts, hopefully if we’re smart we can sort out solutions so power supply can be the same as usual, but it’s an increased risk.”

ElectraNet acknowledged South Australia had relied on Victorian power for a long time. “We always rely to some extent on the Victorian interconnector, it’s been there for some 25-30 years, it is part of our supply mix,” an ElectraNet spokesman Paul Roberts told ABC at the time. “Many times other supply will kick in and there’s always stuff on standby, but in this case it may well have been the size of the load.”

The closures of the Port Augusta power stations was partly blamed on the rise of renewable energy sources and an oversupply of power in the National Electricity Market. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said he thought that SA had become too reliant on renewables and independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon has called for an inquiry into what happened. But Mr Weatherill has blamed people’s “political agendas” for the “ignorant remarks”, noting that Mr Joyce hated wind farms. “I mean this is a weather event, not a renewable energy event, and the truth is this, when there’s a crisis people pull out their agendas.”

This issue was a concern for me as I believe that Climate Change due to human activity is a reality and renewable energy is the way to go. So I posted an article in our latest JPIC Newsletter in May of this year, 2017, entitled, “Clean Coal.” I used, as my source material, an article from the website of an organisation called, ‘The Australian Climate Council.’ The article I wrote read as follows:

When dug up and burned, coal pollutes the environment and damages our health. Burning coal for electricity emits toxic and carcinogenic substances into our air, water and land, severely impacting on the health of miners, workers and communities. The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering estimated coal’s health impacts cost taxpayers $2.6 billion every year.

More efficient coal plants labeled “ultra supercritical” (what the Federal Government calls “clean coal”) emit significant greenhouse gases. A new high-efficiency coal plant run on black coal would produce about 80% of the emissions of an equivalent old plant, while


renewables (e.g. wind and solar) emit zero emissions.  

So-called “clean coal” does not help Australia meet its obligations to reduce its emissions 26-28% by 2030 below 2005 levels.

Building new coal plants is far from the cheapest option for replacing Australia’s ageing, inefficient coal fleet. New wind and solar plants both in Australia and overseas are beating new coal, gas and nuclear plants hands down on price. AGL’s Silverton Wind Farm will deliver power to the grid at a price of $65 per MWh compared to new coal potentially costing as much as $160.

Also fossil fuels drive climate change, and
 that is bad news for all of us. It means more extreme weather events such as catastrophic bushfires, severe storms and deadly heatwaves. Climate change endangers homes, businesses, communities and us. It even led to an entire state being plunged into darkness when storms in South Australia took out over 20 transmission towers.

This is why the whole world is moving away from coal. They are shutting down existing coal-fired power stations, and embracing renewable energy.

A good friend of mine, and a one-time student in formation with the Passionists, Steve McDonald, with whom I often have great debates over these issues, received a copy of the newsletter (which incidentally can be accessed through this blog as with all back issues of the JPIC newsletter). Steve is quite passionate about the need for hard science in this debate as opposed to what he sees as propaganda. He wrote me of his concerns, on reading it, so I sent him a link to the Australian Climate Council website from which I sourced the material. Having been a scientist myself before joining the Passionists, I do respect his views. So below is his well considered response, which I offer you, the reader, to consider your own opinion on this matter:

Hi Ray,

Interesting article.…. It has many errors, is internally inconsistent and frequently uses emotive language to promote it cause, sounds a lot like propaganda to me. And unfortunately such propaganda prevents us from moving to a less carbon intensive economy as quickly as we could because it scares away rational investment.

Just a couple of things to note about it:

  • It blames the storm for the power outage in SA and coal because it is responsible for the storm. Are they seriously suggesting we didn’t have storms like this in the early 20th century? because I would bet the weather records show quite a few.
  • They claim coal is no good because it relies on a big distribution grid, well unfortunately so do Hydro and Wind and even Solar today because battery storage is as yet uneconomical for the average suburban household.
  • They argue that coal is dangerous and therefore not secure, frankly this is grasping at straws, from what I can see we have very successfully run coal powered plants for over 100 years with a very high degree of security, in fact much more than SA just experienced depending on wind.
  • They promote greater interconnection as a solution to energy security and stability – unfortunately this requires the grid which they have just argued is a problem we have with coal fired plants.
  • They of course promote battery storage but batteries in large part depend on lithium at the moment its a very expensive metal mined at concentrations of 1% – 3% in ore which means you move a massive amount of waste to get a tonne of ore which then contains around 30kgs of lithium. This is expensive and uses lots of energy to mine and process, there is also only a relatively small amount of know lithium reserves in the world so it would be interesting to work out how much electricity we could actually store in batteries if we mined it all, I would bet a lot less than we need. I’m all for battery storage it makes renewable energy much more useful but lets look at the whole equation not present it as an answer to everything without adequate research. You can also use lead acid batteries but the environmental aspects of that are pretty horrible as well.
  • The $65Mwh they quote for the Silverton project is based upon what they sell it to the grid at not what the real cost is. This project claims Large Scale Generating Certificates and sells them on the market to subsidies this number. This is basically a dishonest comparison to a coal cost which they note at $80Mwh, the certificates trade at a varying rate which has been between $80 – $90 per Mwh over the last year hence the real cost at Silverton is likely to be around $145Mwh. I think this more than anything else shows you that this is an article that is designed to hide the truth not reveal it.
  • They then go on to say that coal could cost $160Mwh which is directly contradicted by their own words when they say it is currently costing $80Mwh. Of course they speculate this as a future cost but all energy sources are likely to go up in price over time so this is just plain scaremongering.
  • The Mundine article I sent you uses a far more reliable measure of the relative cost of energy generation called the Levelised Cost of Electricity Generation (LCOE) you will note that these figures are pretty consistent with my calculations above, though wind appears to be cheaper at $103Mwh which suggests that AGL will make a killing at Silverton.
  • It quotes the anti Coal climate institute as an authority on coal generation, this would seem like preaching to the converted to me, and the figures it quotes don’t line up with the costs that they themselves have quoted of $80Mwh.
  • It says that because coal will become obsolete we shouldn’t use it now, well from what I can see lots of technologies become obsolete and that doesn’t stop us using them while they aren’t obsolete. Quite simply if coal fired power stations can be replaced by renewables I would support the government buying them out when that situation exists, unfortunately it doesn’t at the moment and to pretend it does is dangerous.
  • It claims the government has to phase out coal by 2035 to meet its targets, not sure where they get that from but its certainly not what the government is saying.
  • They also claim Victoria will require “Demand Management” what this means is that they will have to have planned blackouts or rationing to large businesses, particularly the aluminum smelters. It will work but I think they are using soft sounding words for something people would not support, again being less than truthful.
  • As the article I sent you yesterday shows the world is not generating less electricity from coal and isn’t likely to for a very long time. There are countries like China that are closing old dirty plants and opening newer cleaner coal plants, I think this is a good thing but it doesn’t mean that they are depending less on coal than they currently are.
  • The claim that Ultra Super Critical Coal won’t help Australia meet its greenhouse targets is just plain illogical if you generate the same amount of electricity but generate less carbon doing it then it will lower Australia’s overall carbon emissions, I can’t figure out how anyone could conclude anything else.
  • Finally their list of authorities is pretty thin quoting selectively from various authorities many of whom seem to be other green lobby groups and even the ABC on one article but conveniently ignoring the fact that the ABC published several articles on the SA blackout that said the primary reason for it happening was the high dependence on renewable energy.

Sorry to rant at you again but it upsets me greatly when people use very selective “facts” to support their own argument and refuse to look at things in a logical and scientific manner. The great pity about this is that it causes us to go backwards not forwards in our search for a low carbon economy because only certain solutions are “acceptable”, this is a very poor scientific process at least as I understand it.

On another front there is a very interesting article on the ABC today about a potential advance in the use of Hydrogen from the CSIRO, this would be excellent news if it can work on a commercial scale and I trust the CSIRO much more than I do the Climate Council, however, currently this would be expensive and only a solution for first world countries which isn’t really where the carbon emissions growth is unfortunately.

No doubt you will try and convince me that my views above are incorrect on Saturday, I look forward to it!

Regards, Steve





About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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1 Response to South Australia’s Blackout and the Climate Debate.

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