Federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg believes a meeting of the COAG energy council in Canberra on Thursday “couldn’t come at a more important time” just one week after South Australia experienced a statewide blackout triggering a federal political war in its aftermath.
The role of intermittent renewable power, the potential use of batteries for electricity storage, and the construction of more interstate electricity inter-connectors will be discussed when federal and state energy ministers meet.
The meeting has taken on extra importance in the wake of last week’s disastrous state-wide outage, which caused economic losses when metals foundries were shut down, and patients in one of the state’s major hospitals had to be evacuated when back-up generators also failed.
Ambitious state-based renewable energy targets are also on the table after an ugly political stoush erupted in the hours after the blackout, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull branding them unrealistic and counter-productive.
That followed some senior Coalition figures blaming the blackout on South Australia’s heavy reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
Their haste in blaming renewables runs counter to the fact that Australians, according to survey data obtained by Fairfax Media, remain favourably disposed towards clean energy and comparatively hostile to coal as an electricity source.
An interim report on the September 28 blackout by the Australian Energy Market Operator found the system collapse was caused by the extreme weather conditions, but the report also left open the prospect of tagging renewable energy generation as a contributing factor once further study is undertaken.
Conventional energy advocates say the inherently intermittent nature of solar and wind make it less suited to the task of gearing up to replace other power supplies that have been knocked out, for whatever reason.
The AEMO report explained how the loss of power from downed electricity transmission towers had placed inordinate demand on the Victoria-South Australia Heywood interconnector, causing it to trip as a self-preservation mechanism, thus shutting down entirely.
The SA blackout, and the lessons it provides, will be the hot topic at the ministers’ meeting.
“With renewables comprising a growing supply of energy mix, there will be important discussion about the role of battery storage, frequency control, ancillary services, interconnectors, and state based renewable energy targets,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“Our goal is clear. We want reliable and affordable energy supply as we transition to a lower emissions future.
“But at all times, energy security is paramount and that is why we need better co-ordination and co-operation between the states, territories and the federal government to harmonise state and federal-based renewable energy targets.”
By chance, Future Super, which markets itself as Australia’s first fossil-free superannuation investor, had commissioned nationwide public polling during the week of the black-out, to gauge the popularity of renewable versus coal-fired energy.
Its 1002-person survey was conducted by Lonergan Research and found just 15 per cent of respondents were either negative or very negative about renewable energy compared to 84 per cent who were positive or very positive.
Coal registered 59 per cent for total negative and 44 per cent for total positive. Future Super said it believed the polling was the first such research done during and after the blackout.
The AEMO report did little to quell the politicking over energy policy with the South Australian government declaring it had vindicated its assessment that the power outage was caused by the storm alone, and others pointing to the open finding on the particular role of renewable power in the state’s overall mix.
Mr Frydenberg said AEMO would brief ministers on Thursday before the COAG energy council considered “the potential hardening of infrastructure” and discuss gaps in the national energy market.
The CSIRO will also provide ministers with an update on battery storage and the role it might play in future.