Labor bets on renewables in South Australian elections

South Australian Labor is banking on its push for renewable energy to sway voters.

Who would you rather vote for in a state election?

A candidate from a leafy-suburbs party that has not been able to quell its factional squabbling for long enough to win office since before the turn of the century? Or a know-nothing roped in a few weeks earlier to stand on behalf of a political opportunist, who bases his appeal on childish stunts?

Or, perhaps, you’d prefer the incumbent party. You know that it is usually too scared of the big end of town to defend the interests of its traditional base, and that it does so only when it is facing defeat and has tried most of the alternatives first.

But your last quarterly power bill was nudging a thousand dollars. So if the government is defying the energy profiteers and going on a crash course of introducing new technology that will save you hitting the financial wall … you may well start paying attention. 

Welcome to the South Australian elections, due on March 17. Unlike the usual staid proceedings, the campaigning this time has been thrown into turmoil.

First, there was a populist incursion, after the attention-seeking then crossbench Senator Nick Xenophon quit Canberra and vowed to return to state politics.

Second, there was a rare show of intelligence from a state parliamentary Labor Party that in the past has reflected the locked-down conservatism of a dominant group of right-wing trade unions.

The Labor government, as Premier Jay Weatherill and his colleagues acknowledge, has opted to turn this election into a referendum on renewable energy. The government has done so knowing renewables are highly popular among voters, and that the scientific and engineering case for the new technologies is compelling.

On this issue, meanwhile, the state Liberal opposition is at a clear disadvantage, shackled to its coal-loving federal brethren.   

A new choice?

Signs that these elections would be unlike previous ones began appearing in the final months of last year.

Surveys showed Labor leader Jay Weatherill and opposition chief Steven Marshall were far outstripped as preferred premier by Xenophon, leader of recently formed party SABest. A December Newspoll showed 32% of voters were planning to direct their first preferences to SABest, compared to the Liberal Party on 29% and Labor on 27%.

Xenophon, who earlier hoped merely to control the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly, appears to have dreamt of grander things. Additional SABest candidates were swiftly drafted; enough, if the surveys proved true, for the party to form the next government.

Almost certainly, that will not happen. Recent surveys suggest voters are growing sceptical of Xenophon’s often-juvenile showmanship and habit of making policy on the fly. Meanwhile, the Liberals and Labor are reportedly planning preference swaps to ensure vulnerable seats fall to one or another established major party.

SABest, however, is still viewed as likely to win a number of seats, mostly from the Liberals and in suburban-fringe areas. With four existing independent MPs given a good chance of victory, a hung parliament is highly likely. Which major party will then form a government may not be known for weeks after the votes are counted.

While the political duopoly of Labor and Liberal seems destined to survive in South Australia, the state’s voters are clearly restive, and in search of a vehicle for protest. The fact that residents even contemplate a vote for Xenophon — one of whose antics was to ride a toy train around outside Parliament House (the Gravy Train, get it?) — shows wide dissatisfaction with the scarcely-diluted version of neoliberalism retailed over the past 16 years by successive Labor governments.

South Australia has not prospered economically in recent decades. Economic growth has lagged behind national figures, as the state’s vehicle and other manufacturing has vanished and promised “sunrise” industries have not emerged to replace it. World’s-highest electricity charges, as suppliers of gas to the generating plants jacked up prices and generating firms restricted output to gouge the consumer, have not helped.

To be sure, state governments in Australia have few levers on economic life within their borders. Their powers of taxation are limited, and it is capitalist firms, not the people, that decide whether new industries are set up.

But that is not to excuse at least one spectacularly bad call by Weatherill’s Labor cabinet. Seeking a bonanza to restore South Australia’s fortunes, in March 2015 it overrode established policy to set up a Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. As anticipated, the commission recommended setting up a huge underground dump in outback South Australia to store imported high-level nuclear waste.

The dump scheme collapsed in November 2016 after a 300-member “citizens’ jury”, convened by the government to lend a garnish of popular consent to its plan, instead overwhelmingly rejected it.

Blackouts

By this time, Weatherill faced a more immediate political problem. In September 2016 freak storms brought down vital power lines and for hours the state suffered a near-complete blackout. Stretching the facts, Liberal politicians blamed the outage on South Australia’s reliance on renewable energy, especially wind power.

Sweltering weather in February last year, together with the reluctance of the generating firm Engie to bring a mothballed gas turbine into operation, brought another round of load-shedding.

Now thoroughly alarmed for its chances of re-election, the government began an intensive study of the state’s power supply options.

This time, Weatherill and his colleagues wised up. South Australia lacks cheap coal, but has exceptional resources of wind and solar energy, and over the past decade Labor has encouraged the development of wind power. Renewable energy technologies have now matured to the point where they can guarantee supply around the clock, at attractive prices. All that was required was for the government, its back to the wall, to embrace the possibilities.

Improbably, this has made South Australia a world test-bed for new energy equipment and concepts, applied at grid scale. In August, Weatherill announced a 150 megawatt solar thermal power plant, with eight hours of storage, would be built near Port Augusta. According to the premier, the plant would be the largest of its type in the world.

Late in November the world’s largest storage battery, supplied by the US firm Tesla, was switched on in the state’s mid-north.

Then early in February the government unveiled plans to deploy a 250MW “virtual power plant”, linking household rooftop solar and battery storage. Again reportedly the world’s biggest, the project will eventually draw on at least 50,000 households, beginning with low-income properties where power bills are expected to fall by about 30%.

Energy initiatives

As the election campaigning has accelerated, Weatherill and his ministers have announced fresh renewable energy initiatives every few days. Funding is to be provided for feasibility studies on five large pumped hydro storage projects. The state’s target of 50% renewable energy by 2025 — a figure already on the cusp of being met — has been boosted to a world-leading 75%. Added to this will be an energy storage target of 750 megawatts, corresponding to about 25% of maximum demand.

Over and above the “virtual power plant”, loans will be offered to 10,000 households to install rooftop solar and battery storage, with no interest payable for the first seven years. Purchasers of zero-emissions vehicles will be spared stamp duty and registration payments. An agreement has been announced for the German firm Sonnen to build Australia’s first battery manufacturing plant in Adelaide. An electrolysis plant, to turn renewable energy into hydrogen for export, is to be built near Port Lincoln.

By replacing expensive gas, and forcing competition onto the tight local oligarchy of electricity generators, the expansion of renewables is expected to bring major cuts to the state’s crippling power prices.

There is no doubt that South Australians are impressed. A recent survey showed a strong majority (62.2%) in the state agreed that Australia should switch to solar and wind, plus storage, as the main source of energy within the next ten years.

The Liberal opposition has been left flat-footed. In October, the Liberals promised a $100 million fund to provide grants to residents wanting to add battery storage to their solar panels. But in deference to their federal colleagues they also called for the state’s renewable energy target to be scrapped.

Xenophon’s party has sought to match some elements of Labour’s proposals, projecting a community electricity cooperative to provide price cuts to low-income households and small businesses. But SABest is hampered by its leader’s fundamental conservatism and opportunist record of trying to build support by enlisting marginal constituencies to his cause.

As an independent member of the South Australian Legislative Council in 1998, Xenophon voted with the Liberals to privatise the state’s electricity distribution system, setting the stage for the rip-offs to come. As a Senator in 2012, he smelled votes in a scientifically unfounded scare campaign against wind turbines, and voted to impose restrictions on the wind power industry. At one point, he reportedly implied that wind turbines could cause brain damage.

No one has much idea whether Labor or the Liberals will form the next government in South Australia. But this time, working-class voters will at least have an obvious choice between major parties.

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