Renfrey Clarke

If South Australia were a country, its citizens since July 1 would have been paying the highest residential electricity prices of any nation in the world, edging out Denmark.

Throughout most of Australia, the new financial year brought spiralling energy charges. For an average Canberra household without rooftop solar, the combined cost of electricity and gas over 2017–18 will rise by $580.

There is no genuine reason why Australia cannot have 100% renewable electricity in less than a decade, at sharply reduced prices.

In May a vice-president of Sempra Energy, one of the largest utility firms in the US, caused a stir by stating flatly that there was no longer any technical obstacle to powering California with 100% renewables.

In public policy, there are many dog’s breakfasts presented as considered initiatives. Rarely, though, are we served up such a self-contradictory, irrational and generally talentless a dish as the new “energy intervention” announced by South Australia’s Labor government on March 14.

Aimed at side-stepping conservative attacks over recent power cuts, the government’s plan makes some provision for storage back-up to underpin wind and solar. But mainly, the $550 million scheme consists of large-scale concessions to fossil fuel interests — in this case, the gas industry.

Right-wing politicians have blown hard on the anti-renewables dog-whistle since February 8, when extreme temperatures in South Australia were followed by rolling electricity blackouts.

Late that afternoon, power demand in the state spiked to near-record levels. From about 6pm, 100 megawatts — roughly 3% of the state’s total demand — was shed for about half an hour.

To most South Australians, Labor Premier Jay Weatherill’s plan for a vast outback dump to host imported high-level nuclear waste is dead, needing only a decent send-off.

Nevertheless, the Premier keeps trying to resurrect the scheme. Why?

Usually, when people mention dying in a ditch, they are discussing something they would much rather avoid. But for the South Australian state Labor government of Premier Jay Weatherill, dying in a ditch seems a positive ambition.

For Weatherill and his cabinet, the “ditch” is the government’s plan to host up to a third of the world’s high-level nuclear waste in a giant dump in the state’s remote north. The dump scheme was rejected decisively on November 6 by a government-organised “Citizens’ Jury”.

To the fury of business spokespeople, South Australia’s “Citizens’ Jury on Nuclear Waste” has effectively exploded plans by the state Labor government to host the world’s largest nuclear waste dump.

The jury was intended by Premier Jay Weatherill to lend his scheme a garnish of popular consent. But in their final report on November 6, the jurors instead concluded that the dump plan should not go ahead “under any circumstances”. The vote was overwhelming, with two-thirds of jury members opposing the government’s projections.

Yes, climate change was right there in the picture when a massive storm cut off power supplies throughout South Australia on September 28, forcing electricity workers to carry out a first-ever “black start” to get the state’s grid operating again. Estimated as a one-in-50-years occurrence, the storm left high-voltage transmission pylons bent like paper-clips.

Efforts to halt plans for nuclear waste dumping in South Australia have made important advances in recent weeks, with environmental, trade union, indigenous and other bodies pushing for a joint opposition campaign.

At a September 16 meeting called by the peak labour movement body, SA Unions, and the Maritime Union of Australia, members of at least 14 organisations resolved to work toward forming a coordinating committee “around the common objective of preventing nuclear waste dumps being established in South Australia”.

Are small-scale nuclear power reactors the key to dealing with the high cost of electricity in South Australia? Someone in the policy apparatus of Labor Premier Jay Weatherill seems to think so.

Adelaide’s Channel 7 splashed the story across its news reports on September 7: the nuclear power option was being officially explored!

“A top-level report clearly indicates small-scale reactors have been on the short-term radar,” the channel stated.

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