Speaking the truth ought not be a revolutionary act for journalists in this country but all too often it is, at least on climate and energy policy. Ask yourself how many journalists’ work has interrogated the costs and benefits of our nation’s climate policies or has even dared to be matter of fact about what has gone wrong with our national electricity market.
Source: Chris Kenny, News Corp
Pilloried for telling truth on renewable problems
When South Australia was plunged into darkness in the state’s first ever statewide blackout on September 28, 2016, it was immediately obvious that SA’s renewable energy push was largely to blame.
That’s because this policy had led to the closure of most of the state’s dispatchable generation, leaving it overly reliant on the Victorian interconnector — if the state went dark because the interconnector failed, then that was a direct consequence of poor planning.
But such is the emotion and politicking around renewable energy that many people, including journalists, attempted to deny this reality even though the true situation was even worse. There had been insufficient preparation to integrate the renewable energy supplies, mainly wind farms, within the state.
Just three days before the statewide blackout a Grattan Institute report drew attention to these weaknesses and it was reported in detail by the ABC’s national political editor Chris Uhlmann. “The report also cautioned the rise of intermittent wind generation poses risks in managing the stability and reliability of the power grid,” he summarised, presciently.
Uhlmann’s factual, non-ideological warning was vindicated within days.
He wrote on the dilemma again, in detail, the day after the blackout, explaining the difficulties presented by the non-synchronous nature of wind energy and noting it might have played a role in the shutdown of the entire state and certainly had hindered efforts to restore power (this required the reactivation of some gas generators and took many hours across most of the state, and days in some parts).
Then SA ALP premier Jay Weatherill attempted to blame the weather, pointing to two felled transmission lines.
Those who knew the state and the grid understood these were relatively insignificant could not be used as an excuse for a statewide blackout.
Other states are hit by cyclones and storms, and don’t lose their entire grid.
Weatherill’s denial was later betrayed by his actions when he allocated $500 million to urgently install diesel generators and battery storage to bolster the state’s non-renewable supply.
Subsequent investigations showed the role of wind energy in the disaster was even more critical. The interconnector had not been tripped by the felling of the transmission lines but by the shutting down of wind farms in response to voltage drops caused by losing the transmission lines.
We now know the statewide blackout would not have occurred if more gas and coal-fired powered had stayed in place, the state hadn’t been left so reliant on the interconnector, and if the wind farms had not shut down instantly in reaction to disruption. The reliance on wind then hampered efforts to restart the grid.
Uhlmann’s reporting of the investigations and findings on this issue remained factual and detailed. They avoided ideological debates about climate change policy and focused on the practical challenges of transitioning to renewable energy.
“Renewables are the future but, today, they present serious engineering problems,” Uhlmann wrote. “To deny that is to deny the science.”
For his trouble the ABC reporter (who has since joined Channel 9) was pilloried. The ABC’s green left stakeholders complained to the national broadcaster, slammed Uhlmann on social media and made a formal complaint to the broadcast regulator. All because a journalist decided his role was to ascertain the facts and inform his audience.
The politics around this issue was volatile. On the cusp of an election Weatherill seemed determined to duck the blame. He ran the absurd line, parroted by many journalists, that the only problem was a storm.
If every state went dark after a severe storm we would be in strife. Anyone who understood the state’s reliance on the interconnector and the reason that reliance had occurred knew renewables policy played a central role.
Those with a greater understanding of the weaknesses built into the grid through wind energy knew the culpability went deeper. And after investigations revealed wind farm shutdowns triggered the interconnector failure, renewable integration was revealed as the only factor that counted.
Last week the Australian Energy Market Operator announced it is taking the wind farms to court.
Business SA estimated the episode cost the state $367m — not counting $500m spent bolstering the grid afterwards.
Because he dared speak truth on an issue related to climate and energy, Uhlmann can forever expect to be seen as a counter-revolutionary.