Here’s an interesting coincidence. This morning, I was reading the latest email from Bloomberg Green about how Europe is struggling with high energy prices right now and has to make a decision — build more unnatural gas capacity or install more renewable energy. It’s a question fraught with weighty political considerations.
Then I came across an article in Renew Economy about how South Australia has not lost a single hour of electricity due to load shedding since 2018. In the four years prior to that, its energy grid shed 7 million hours of electricity. The difference? South Australia has made a major commitment to renewable energy and grid scale battery storage since the catastrophic power outage that hit the state in 2016.
Energy analyst Simon Holmes à Court tells Renew Economy the blackout “was seen by many as the end to the state’s — and Australia’s — renewables ambitions.” Instead, it marked the beginning of the renewable energy and battery storage miracle in South Australia.
Dan van Holst Pellekaan, South Australia’s energy minister, said this week, “Five years ago South Australia was plunged into a statewide blackout that put lives at risk, inflicted immense damage on our economy, and made us the laughing stock of the nation. Today South Australia has the best performing electricity grid in the nation as the Marshall government’s energy policies have strengthened what was a fragile, unstable, and highly vulnerable electricity network.”
The blackout was triggered by strong storms that toppled several transmission towers and three transmission links. It quickly became a political football and an ideological battleground between those who were in favor of renewables and those who opposed them.
It amplified the “when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine” meme, but far from putting a stop to renewables in South Australia, those attacks ensured that more work was done to underpin the massive rollout of large-scale wind and solar that followed.
In the past 12 months, South Australia can boast of being a world leader in renewables. Today it gets 62% of its electricity from wind and solar. At the time of the blackout, that number stood at 48%. It leads the world in rooftop solar, which could supply 100% of the state’s electricity by the end of this year. That is unheard of in a gigawatt-scale grid, Renew Economy says.
South Australia boasts new resources, including three big grid-scale batteries — at Hornsdale, Lake Bonney, and Dalrymple North. It also has several large-scale virtual power plants and new synchronous condensers that, in conjunction with those batteries, provide critical grid services that were once delivered by coal and gas.
The state is adding even more wind and solar capacity, including the country’s biggest wind and solar hybrid project at Port Augusta, and has a huge pipeline of new wind, solar, battery and hydrogen projects that will be unlocked by the new transmission link to New South Wales.
The Liberal government has a stated target of reaching “net 100 per cent renewables” by 2030, but is likely to get there well before then. It is looking to produce five times the state’s grid demand from renewables in the future in order to make renewable hydrogen and become a renewable export superpower.
Van Holst Pellekaan noted that South Australia is the only state in the country to avoid forced outages since 2018. By comparison, the two Australian states with the greatest dependence on coal-fired generating stations — Queensland and New South Wales — have suffered the most load shedding in recent years. And still the naysayers at the state and federal level continue their cynical attacks on renewables.
In actuality, says Simon Holmes à Cou, the 2016 blackout turned out to be merely a bump in the road and a warning to the country’s energy regulator and the other states to raise their renewable energy game and get on with decarbonizing the grid.
“South Australians were let down by the former Labor Government’s chaotic energy policies that resulted in us having some of the most unreliable and expensive electricity in the world,” says van Holst Pellekaan. “The Marshall government has made over two dozen substantive interventions to get energy security back under control since coming to government.
“What makes this achievement even more extraordinary is that the Marshall government has delivered a $303 reduction for the average household after bills went up $477 under the last two years of Labor. (Emphasis added.) “And we still have more benefits on the way for South Australian via Project EnergyConnect, the interconnector between South Australia and New South Wales.
The Problem In Europe
In today’s Bloomberg Green email, Akshat Rathi says, “Europe’s going through an energy crunch with electricity prices at record highs and fears that the continent may have to shut factories to ensure homes have gas for heat.” Drivers in the UK are panicking about finding petrol for their cars while EV drivers — who typically charge up at home overnight — are driving wherever they please. In a delicious irony, the range anxiety shoe is now on the other foot and interest in electric cars is skyrocketing.
Rashti points out that Europe and the UK are subject to precisely the same polarizing notions about renewable energy that have afflicted Australia for the past 5 years or more.”If Europe’s climate policies are your primary bugbear, for example, you might say something like: ‘Green warriors are on a mission to stamp out prosperity as we know it.'” In fact, The Telegraph ran a story with that exact title recently.
On the other hand, if you’re bound by a climate law as the UK government is, you could double down on the energy transition, Rathi says. “The U.K.’s exposure to volatile global gas prices underscores the importance of our plan to build a strong, home-grown renewable energy sector,” Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary who’s also responsible for energy issues, wrote on Twitter. “In moving away from fossil fuels, we can insulate ourselves.”
It all depends on the larger sentiment around tackling climate change. “If the political context is favorable to the transition, people are going to leverage the crisis to double down on renewables,” says Nikos Tsafos, an energy and geopolitics expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “If the political context is against the transition, people are going to use it as a way to have it slow down.”
Public opinion is often influenced by simplified narratives that may not always reflect the facts, Rathi writes. And crises present a ripe opportunity for opinion makers who know that fear sells. [See Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine for more on this topic.] That’s why some UK newspapers have run front page articles about a “Winter of Woe” or how energy bills are headed for a “Catastrophic Price Rise.”
Whether those new arguments take hold, however, depends on the existing base of knowledge and prevailing narratives. “The oil industry’s propaganda around climate issues has been pervasive in the US for decades,” says Carroll Muffett, president of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law. “While we’ve seen industry efforts in the EU, they’ve never reached the levels of pervasiveness, funding and coordination we’ve seen in the US.”
The experience of South Australia strongly supports the notion that renewable energy can and will meet all of society’s needs for electricity and do it without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and at lower cost than thermal generation. And yet, social media influencers seem to be able to take the perfectly obvious and make into a fog of fear and doubt with just a few keystrokes. People simply cannot bring themselves to question something they read online, like the Covid vaccine makes utensils stick to your skin or that Democrats are running a child pornography ring out of a pizza parlor in Georgetown. In the age of artificial stupidity, ignorance is rampant upon the land.
The internet was supposed to bring the collective brain power of all the world’s citizens together to solve the existential problems that beset humanity — war, poverty, hunger, and inequality , for example. Instead, it has fragmented us into smaller and smaller groups where opinions and beliefs overrule common sense. The potential to power all of humanity’s needs is within our grasp but is in danger of slipping through our fingers.
We have one chance to get this right. What is troubling is how many people are willing to throw renewable energy under the bus because of something they saw online posted by an agent of the fossil fuel companies who knows what levers to pull to fill our minds with fear. My old Irish grandmother talked about people with two perfectly good eyes who lacked the power to see what was right in front of them. Unless we rediscover the ability to engage in critical thinking, we are doomed.