Renewables in South Australia: Blame games and framing battles

by | Nov 30, 2016 | All posts, Sustainable transitions | 0 comments

Adelaide and energy systems have one thing in common – they rarely dominate the Australian news. However, twice in the past three months they have been front and centre. With South Australia’s increase in renewables blamed for a blackout caused by high winds, Marc Hudson examines the ‘framing battles’ taking place in Australia.

Price spike and blackouts

In July spot prices for electricity in South Australia briefly went through the roof. While some media and commentators were extremely quick to blame this on the high levels of renewable energy generation in Australia, the truth was later reported to be otherwise. As those among us old enough to remember the California electricity crisis 15 years ago, there was sharp practice afoot.

Spot prices, however, lack a visceral impact. According to Reneweconomy, one energy company CEO remarked “that 99.999 per cent of customers would not have been required to pay the higher electricity prices, and that those who did would do so only as a result of a failure to hedge against the spot market”. But slightly higher electricity bill do not compare to the lights suddenly going out, as they did across South Australia in late September.

The actual cause of this blackout has been explained by a variety of experts asked to comment by the academic-led news publication, The Conversation. Whilst the debate over the price spike was comprised of “renewables proponents versus those who would like to slow/stop/reverse the use of renewable energy”, the blackout battle is more nuanced. Aside from pro-and-anti renewables advocates there are also those who see the event as an opportunity to press for distributed energy.

Propagating an opinion about any contentious event that has affected people is inevitably tricky. Too soon and the commentator may be accused of ‘insensitivity’, but too late and the relentless news cycle has moved on. Some people –  Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, independent senator Nick Xenophon and State Liberals leader Stephen Marshall– were quick off the mark. In their eagerness, they may have mistimed it.  Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made the point:

“While a bushfire was underway, if [the Greens] had talked about climate change, Barnaby Joyce would have been all over them like a rash, calling them un-Australian and all the rest of the nonsense… yet here we have the Conservatives trying to play politics about renewable energy when this is a storm, it is the weather blowing over towers”

An alternative framing similarly points the finger of blame at extreme weather as the cause of the blackout, but still attempts to mobilise the fear and uncertainty that the blackout caused as part of an attempt to slow down states’ push for renewables. Included in this is the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Environment Minister Josh Frydenburg, who had also been clear on the actual causes of the July price spike. Frydenburg utilised the ensuing media coverage on energy security to remark that some states’ “unrealistic” renewables targets are part of a “bigger question … [on] how … we can prevent this going forward”. Whilst admitting the present crisis is not caused by renewables, the opportunity is taken to try to de-legitimise the states’ renewable energy goals. Prime Minister Turnbull’s position echoes this, despite admitting extreme weather was the immediate cause of the blackout he has nevertheless has identified Queensland’s 50% renewable target (a further 35.5% than present makeup) as part of an unhelpful “political gamesmanship” between states. As he remarked:

“What’s the pathway to achieve that? [It’s] very hard to see it. It’s a political or ideological statement…. We’ve got to recognise that energy security is the key priority and targeting lower emissions is very important but it must be consistent with energy security.”

This antipathy to renewables should also be seen in the context of on-going State-Federal government tensions on these issues. In the 2000s, while Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was resolutely blocking action on emissions reductions, Labor-led states began work on a states-based emissions reduction scheme instead. This was part of the pressure that forced Howard into a late-2006 U-turn, with both parties fighting the 2007 Federal election with an emissions trading scheme in their manifestos. A similar dynamic is at play now, with Federal intransigence, along with hostility toward a renewables target beyond 2020, being factors behind ambitious state action on the increase in renewables.

What is interesting about this blackout though, is that it is also being used by proponents of distributed energy to boost their argument.

Never let a serious crisis go to waste

The use of events to try to shift the narrative about the proper place of technology is hardly new. When something goes “wrong”, there is an opportunity to create a new ‘norm’. For example, before World War 2, airships looked as if they might challenge heavier than air transport. Unfortunately for the industry, the (hydrogen-based) Hindenburg went up in flames at “the worst possible time to explode” and so fixed the technology in the public mind as extremely dangerous.

If a technology does not “fit” with a moral cosmology – a view of how the world ‘should be’-its progress is slowed or even stalled. Deborah Stone wrote in 1989, bringing a condition under human control often poses a challenge to old hierarchies…”. Stone exemplifies this claim through the case of the hookworm parasite, which afflicted many poorer rural areas in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The parasite caused its victims to become “listless” and “slow-witted”, contrary to popular belief pinning these symptoms on the “laziness and lax moral character” of the poor.  So, when Charles Stiles demonstrated in 1902 that the disease had a cheap cure, he was ridiculed and attacked. As Stone argued:

The discovery was resisted because it meant that southern elites had to stop blaming “poor white trash” for their laziness and stupidity and stop congratulating themselves for their superior ability to work hard and think fast – a supposed superiority that served to justify the political hierarchy”

Similar battles between technologies are often fought, whether it is over the legitimacy of nuclear power in the Netherlands and the UK, or the introduction of LED lighting and biofuels. The appraisal of technology is not a ‘neutral’ process.

Advocates of the status quo, that is, proponents of large, centralised fossil fuel-based electricity generation are becoming increasingly knee-jerk on blaming problems on insurgent technologies.  The recent framing battles surrounding renewables and the Australian blackouts are telling of this. However, as the carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, and the ‘1 in 50 year’ events happen more and more frequently, this transition is becoming ever-more crucial. There is an urgency to negotiate this low-carbon resistance to secure immediate action toward a more sustainable future.