October 03, 2016





KRISTINA KENEALLY: Blackouts in South Australia, the super storm. Was renewable energy to blame? Was it the infrastructure? Well one person that might have a bit to say about it South Australian Labor MP and frontbencher Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change joining me now Mark Butler. Thanks so much for coming on Newsday.




KENEALLY: I’m really well thank you. Let’s go straight to the claims being made today. Greg Hunt has written an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review he claims that the demonstrated, inability of the South Australian electricity system to cope with storms means that companies will think twice about investing in the state. Your reaction?


BUTLER: Well this is just the latest in a series of falsehoods in attempts by this government to exploit a very serious and dangerous event in South Australia for political reasons. It’s frankly quite shameful. We will see a preliminary report I think Kristina from the energy market operator later this afternoon which will look into the reasons for the statewide power outage that occurred in South Australia last week. What is very clear is that it had nothing to do with generation. It would have happened whether South Australia was fully generated by nuclear power or by coal-fired power or whether we have the mix that we do have of gas fired power and renewable energy. What happened was a 50-year storm tore up more than 20 transmission towers causing the system to go out. Now there will be an inquiry into why those towers failed. There will be, I’m sure, questions asked about why the whole of the system in South Australia outed or tripped rather than simply part of it, but none of these questions turn at all to the type of generations South Australia has. It really was quite an extraordinary attempt by the Prime Minister last week to exploit a very serious and dangerous event in South Australia for purely political purposes and, it must be said, for a political point that has no basis in truth.

KENEALLY: Well you’re correct in saying there will be a number of inquiries looking into this but we do see already the arguments that are broken up as to whether or not the recently closed coal-fired plant in South Australia could have stopped this blackout. The South Australian State Government seems to be pretty clear that it wouldn’t have made a difference. Do you think it would have made a difference?

BUTLER: Well the advice from the State Government is that given where the transmission failure occurred, given where the towers went down, it would not have made a difference and in actual fact it might have well made things worse because these things trip when there is an imbalance between the supply of power and the demand for power. In the same way your household power will trip if a toaster or hairdryer malfunctions. The system then shuts down in order to protect itself from catastrophic damage, but also in order to protect the community, the safety of the community, so all the advice that we have at the moment is even if those old coal fired power stations in Pt Augusta were still running, the system would have reacted no differently. If anything it may well have been worse. But look, the other falsehood in Greg Hunt’s commentary this morning is that somehow this was a decision of the State Government for those power stations, very old power stations to close. It must be said that this was a decision taken by the company itself and a decision I think taken in the absence of any framework from the Federal Government about how we are going to see the older coal fired power stations retire from the system. Firstly in a way that ensures good reliable supply of electricity around the country but also in a way that supports the economic adjustment of those communities. We saw no support to the workers and the regional community of the iron triangle in South Australia from Malcolm Turnbull for months after this decision was taken by the company, not by the State Government, but by the company concerned.


KENEALLY: Well I’m glad you’ve raised privatisation because that seems to be a factor that hasn’t really been discussed very much in recent days I mean we hear that perhaps on Friday that there may be some discussion with Minister Frydenberg and the energy ministers about investing in new interconnectors and upgrading infrastructure, but a lot of this infrastructure has been privatised. Who’s going to pay for that as it is in South Australia in private hands. What levers does government have to force that type of investment?


BUTLER: Well the privatisation debate does rage, and continues to rage in South Australia and it has over the last several months because it is quite clear it would appear that some of the decision taken by the former liberal government around the privatization of the electricity supply here in South Australia have had ongoing ramifications. Particularly, their decision not to proceed with an interconnector to New South Wales, between South Australia and New South Wales was taken as an attempt to fatten the pig if you like before ETSA, the Electricity Trust of South Australia, was sold by the former liberal government. So this is a decision that almost 20 years on Kristina, continues to rage in South Australia. But I think you will see rising out of the event last week in Adelaide that there will be a discussion about the transmission network here in South Australia and also further interconnection between our state and the state of New South Wales. Those will have investment ramifications for the networks. Again, nothing to do at all with the type of generation we have here in South Australia all about the poles and wire system if you like that moves electricity around the state and around the national electricity market.


KENEALLY: Now Minister Frydenberg has seized upon this storm and the aftermath of it in order to argue for harmonisation between the state, the territories and the commonwealth on renewable energy targets. In your view is there a need to have some type of harmonisation and what would it achieve?


BUTLER: Well I think everyone’s preference, the industries and the states as well as Federal Labor’s would be for there to be an ambitious renewable energy target for the 2020’s so up to 2030 if you like. Now at the moment the Federal Government has no plans for renewable energy building beyond 2020. Probably beyond 2019 for that matter and they have continuously turned their face against there being any support for renewable energy beyond the next few years. Now in the absence of a federal policy you will see states move independently with that vacuum. That’s what happened when John Howard resisted renewable energy targets in the early part of the last decade. You saw states start to move in that vacuum and you’re seeing it now. Now our preference, I think everyone’s preference would be that there be a single national target for 2030. Our position is that it should be 50% of Australia’s electricity supply. But until Malcolm Turnbull actually takes that lead it is inevitable that states are going to take positions to their state elections that see renewable energy building in the absence of federal government support. 


KENEALLY: Well Mark Butler that is all we have time for unfortunately today, but thank you so much for joining me on Newsday.