Australia’s energy agenda has again become the subject of national debate, after a severe heatwave across the East Coast resulted in major power outages in South Australia.
Temperatures soared last week to the low to mid 40s in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
For the third time in six months, a swathe of South Australian households and businesses were left without power.
Around 90,000 homes and businesses went 45 minutes without power on February 8, as part of a load shedding program designed to get around the fact the state simply did not have enough energy supply.
SA energy minister Tom Koutsantonis said AEMO, the operator in charge of the national network, had some explaining to do.
“There are still some very serious questions that need to be answered by the operator about what happened,” he said.
“Specifically, we still don’t know why AEMO did not direct available gas-fired generation at Pelican Point [power station] to come on, which would have provided enough power to avoid load shedding.”
The incident has reignited recent debate over Australia’s energy supply, and the mix of energy coming from coal, gas, and renewable sources.
The Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, remains adamant that coal is needed for energy supply to be secure in the near- to medium-term.
“I want to say to you that we understand what a threat it is to business in South Australia, to have the most expensive and the least reliable energy in the nation,” Turnbull said.
He told Adelaide radio host Will Goodings last week the “fundamental problem” in the southern state was that it needs more reliable generation.
“You need more reliable back-up generation in South Australia,” he said.
“What I have set out is a road map to a technology agnostic and ‘all of the above’ approach to energy policy in Australia. We need to have energy, electricity that is affordable, that is reliable.
“The extraordinary complacency and reckless negligence of the South Australian Government has seen the introduction of a massive amount of renewable energy into the South Australian grid.
“Wind energy, that’s fine but the wind doesn’t blow all the time.
“What the South Australian Government has done is nothing to provide the back-up power to support South Australians when the wind isn’t blowing and that is the fundamental problem.”
However, others are adamant the answer does not lie with more coal-burning generation.
Energy Australia took the extreme step of taking out a full-page advertisement in The Australian this week to urge Canberra to fix the energy market with renewables.
“As of today, newer forms of energy are more expensive than some of the older forms of energy, but over the next 20 years those older, cheaper forms of energy are going to retire,” Energy Australia boss Catherine Tanna told ABC’s The Business.
“That’s a reality and that’s why we need a plan to transition into those newer forms of energy.”
A joint statement from 18 bodies, including the Australian Aluminium Council, the Australian Energy Council, the Business Council of Australia and the World Wildlife Fund, also urged for a bipartisan approach to “reliable, affordable and clean energy”.
“The finger pointing will not solve our energy challenges,” the joint statement says.
“More than a decade of this has made most energy investments impossibly risky.
“This has pushed prices higher while hindering transformational change of our energy system.
“The result is enduring dysfunction in the electricity sector.”