As a Brit, you might think I’d never want to hear about another referendum again, but it's not true. There’s only one referendum that I’m totally sick of hearing about.
I’d rather focus on an election being fought 9,800 miles away. This is the state election in South Australia, where voting is due on 17thMarch, and which has been dubbed by the state’s current leader Jay Weatherill as a ‘referendum on renewables’. Now that’s the sort of referendum that I can really get excited about.
It’s not exactly a referendum on renewables, though. It’s an election for members of the South Australian parliament, and so will cover a whole range of issues. But energy policy is among the most controversial and where there is a clear difference between the incumbent pro-wind Labor and the anti-renewables Liberals.
Weatherill is central to the controversy. He became premier of
the state in 2011 and, over the last seven years, has led its Labor Party as it has presided over a major shift in the state’s electricity supply to 48.9% renewables. It has done this with supportive laws and planning rules, rather than relying on direct subsidies; and has changed an electricity system that was previously 99% fossil fuels.
This has not gone unnoticed by Weatherill’s Liberal rivals. In fact, to say it has ‘not gone unnoticed’ isn’t even close to the truth. Liberals at state and national level have been spitting about the policies, and have delighted in laying into him when they can.
And they have been able to. In 2016 and 2017, South Australia experienced a series of blackouts, which Liberals from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull downwards blamed on the intermittent energy production from wind farms.
In reality, the Australian Energy Market Operator said in a report last March that this was “not a material factor” in the blackouts, which were mainly caused by storms and faults in the grid.
There are two reactions we could have to Turnbull and co. We could shrug and say: ‘That’s politics.’ Or we could get angry that he and his Liberal chums are so keen to smear the wind sector that they don’t bother with actual facts. We prefer the latter.
But while those blackouts and Turnbull’s criticism gained global attention, so did the solution. Tesla’s Elon Musk stepped in last year via Twitter and provided a 100MW battery storage project that he said would help to support the South Australian grid, and for free. The involvement of big name backers like Musk has helped to publicly vindicate Weatherill’s support for renewables.
It is now pushing him further. On the election trail, Weatherill has said he will raise the state’s target for electricity from renewables by 2025 from 50% to 75%; and launch a target of 750MW installed energy storage by 2025 to provide 25% of peak electricity demand.
And the Liberals? Predictably, federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg has said that Weatherill is a “problem gambler” when it comes to backing renewables. Nationally, the Liberals are refusing to say that they will maintain Australia’s Renewable Energy Target; and the Liberals in South Australia have called the uptake of renewables as a “failed experiment” that has raised prices. They say they “fully support renewable energy”, but I think we know in whose hands renewables would be safest.
In recent years, South Australia has led the way in terms of its support for renewable energy in Australia. A win for Labor at state level would help keep up the momentum, and also re-shape the debate on energy nationally and in other states.
It won’t be easy for Labor, though, given that it has been in charge in South Australia for 16 years and so there is likely to be a strong desire for change. But, personally, I hope they give the Liberals a thrashing at the ballot box. (Yes, I went there. I’m not a public broadcaster, so I can come down on whichever side I want!)
Given that the Liberals have been lying about wind power for years, it’s pretty clear which side I should be on. They started it.
The Inflation Reduction Act has sparked major optimism in the US renewables sector, but wind installations still fell 37% last year.