With neither the Labor Government of Jay Weatherill nor the Liberal Opposition rating highly in the polls, attention has turned to the two minor parties, Nick Xenophon’s SA-Best and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, to determine the future of South Australia.
The election to be held on March 17 is shaping up to be a referendum on the environmental agenda of South Australia’s Premier, Jay Weatherill, after the Premier declared that if elected, he would boost the production of renewable energy in South Australia to 75 per cent by 2025.
Since the closure of the base-load Northern Power Station in 2016, SA has suffered increased unreliability of electricity supply, higher electricity prices than anywhere else in Australia (and possibly the world), and the closure of major industries. It also affects vulnerable people with health problems, families and small businesses, who have suffered from power outages, food spoilage, and economic dislocation.
Astonishingly, the Liberal Party’s energy policy is silent on the development of credible base-load power in South Australia. Its energy policy released last year is almost a mirror image of Labor’s, but without any commitment to develop either the gas industry or base-load electricity.
Two key elements of its policy are a $200 million interconnection fund to improve connectivity with the National Electricity Market, to import electricity from Victoria and New South Wales, and a $100 million household battery program.
On the vital issue of energy policy, the major parties give South Australians little real choice.
Disenchantment with the Liberals and Labor has led to a surge of support for the popular Nick Xenophon, whose party policy seems to be based on the theme “Trust me”, without much detail, and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which will face its first election test in its home state.
Xenophon has no credible energy policy, but Australian Conservatives has a well-developed program to build base-load power, and remove costly subsidies from “renewable energy”.
At a meeting convened by OurfutureSA, a coalition of 33 environmental organisations, Mr Weatherill said: “The single biggest environmental challenge in our state, the nation, the world, is action on climate change. And I’m proud to say that this State Government is a leader not just in the nation, but in the world.”
Under the Labor Government, renewable energy – mainly wind power, but also solar and battery power – has risen to almost 50 per cent of South Australia’s total energy capacity. Mr Weatherill said that shifting the state’s electricity supply from “basically 99 per cent fossil fuels” to 48.9 per cent would be the dominant issue at voting booths”.
“Make no mistake,” he said, “this next election will be treated, whether we like it or not, as a referendum on renewable energy.”
Because renewable power is intermittent, the consequence of the rise in renewables has been instability in the system, leading to blackouts and expensive backup power, significantly higher prices for electricity, and increasing dependence on coal-generated electricity imported from Victoria and NSW.
A report by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) last December reported: “Combined interconnector net imports to South Australia increased 40 per cent from 2015–16 to 2016–17, from 1,941 gigawatt/hours to 2,725 GWh.”
The alarming consequences of South Australia’s precarious dependence on renewables were seen during the heatwave of January 25, 2018.
The AEMO Data Dashboard at 4pm that day showed that South Australia’s forecast price of electricity, normally about $120 per megawatt/hour, had risen to $8,745.35 per MWh, showing an acute shortage at the same time that Victoria was experiencing similar shortages and blackouts.
While the Weatherill Government is touting its green credentials, it is quietly pushing ahead with the expansion of gas generation in the state – the only form of base-load power in the state – and environmentalists are not happy.
The SA Labor Government is supporting continued expansion of the Cooper Basin oil and gas fields, located near the SA-Queensland border, and construction of a new gas-fired power station.
The Cooper Basin is the largest oil and gas field in Australia, and it supplies gas to Queensland and New South Wales, as well as to South Australia. Its largest producer is Santos.
Other oil and gas exploration is being conducted in the southeast of the state near Mount Gambier, and along the offshore zone, extending into the Great Australian Bight.
The SA Greens and associated environmental organisations are vehemently opposed to the development of SA’s oil and gas reserves.
Recent polling put Nick Xenophon’s party, SA-Best, ahead of both Liberal and Labor, reflecting disenchantment with the policies of both major parties. It is unclear how SA-Best and Australian Conservatives will fare in the election, but they could well determine the future direction of South Australia.