Turnbull blames renewable energy for state's power blackout

Trees toppled by high winds near the town of Melrose in South Australia. The state was lashed by severe storms on Wednesday that knocked over transmission towers, triggering a total blackout.
Trees toppled by high winds near the town of Melrose in South Australia. The state was lashed by severe storms on Wednesday that knocked over transmission towers, triggering a total blackout.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CANBERRA • Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has stepped up his government's attack on renewable energy by seizing on a storm-driven blackout in the mainland state that is most reliant on wind and solar generation.

South Australia, which draws 41 per cent of its energy from renewables, was working to restore power after severe storms on Wednesday knocked over transmission towers and triggered a total blackout.

Mr Turnbull said there was no doubt that the state's move to renewables had strained the electricity grid.

Some state governments had set renewable energy targets "that are extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic, and have paid little or no attention to energy security", Mr Turnbull told reporters in Launceston, Tasmania, yesterday.

The storm should be treated as "a real wake-up call", he said.

Championed globally as a tool to cut greenhouse gases and combat global warming, renewable energy is contentious in Australia, the world's biggest coal exporter.

Since winning power in 2013 under then leader Tony Abbott, the Liberal-National government has dismantled a levy on carbon emissions and cut targets for how much energy it aims to draw from wind and solar generation by 2020.

While Mr Turnbull has not used the language of former Treasurer Joe Hockey, who labelled wind farms as "appalling" and "utterly offensive", the Melbourne-based Grattan Institute said it was incorrect for the federal government to link the power failure with South Australia's renewable policies.

"I haven't seen any substance for a connection between the issues," said Mr Tony Wood, director of the economic think-tank's energy programme.

"They are both significant but different. My concern would be the things that have to be done to address each of those issues are quite different, and if you try and combine them together, you'll probably get the wrong answer for both," he added.

The storm in South Australia packed winds of up to 115kmh, damaging towers and causing the statewide blackout that lasted several hours.

About 90,000 to 100,000 homes and businesses remained without power yesterday afternoon, a spokesman for distributor SA Power Networks said.

The national energy market operator said the failure had occurred when South Australia's electricity market disconnected from that of Victoria state.

After Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said on radio yesterday that South Australia's reliance on renewable energy had contributed to the blackout because wind farms could not operate in excessive winds, the state's Labor premier Jay Weatherill accused him of conducting a "jihad against wind farms".

"This is a weather event, not a renewable energy event," Mr Weatherill said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull blames renewable energy for state's power blackout'. Print Edition | Subscribe