Where the wind blows, public sector getting on with the job

By Stephen Easton

Thursday September 29, 2016

(L-R) Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, SA Premier Jay Weatherill and SA Emergency Chief Chris Beattie speak to the media during a press conference in Adelaide, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. South Australia is coming back to life after severe weather damaged energy infrastructure, shutting down the entire electricity network and plunging the state into darkness. High winds are being blamed for bringing down at least 22 transmission towers in the mid-north on Wednesday with about 80,000 lightning strikes hitting the state, some damaging generation facilities. (AAP Image/David Mariuz) NO ARCHIVING

There will obviously be a lot of questions asked inside the government offices of South Australia, and no doubt in both state and federal parliament, about how a powerful storm caused such a major statewide blackout.

But in any disaster, there are always more pressing issues. The Bureau of Meteorology was warning of more frightening weather to come, with emergency services already facing the biggest job they’d seen for many years. Power was restored to 90% of households early on Thursday and Western Australian emergency services volunteers were soon on the way to help out.

Various other parts of the public service also snapped into action to support the relief effort in whatever ways they could, particularly through social media. The Department of Health issued tips on food safety, for example, while the Department of Education and Child Development has been keeping parents updated about closures of schools and childcare centres.

Back-up generators kicked in at hospitals, public transport services have scrambled to get back on track where possible and also keep the public informed of what’s happening; wherever you look, public sector workers are getting on with the job.

Politics on hold?

Premier Jay Weatherill said there would eventually be an “arms length” review of how those emergency services agencies and the state’s power companies responded to the disaster. But at this stage, there is no reason to suggest that the blackout is the result of any bungling in the public sector.

Strong winds and stormy weather that even formed twin tornados at one point smashed 22 large power transmission towers across the state, causing a cascading shutdown effect that included two inter-connectors that bring power across from Victoria.

“This is a weather event, not a renewable energy event.”

It didn’t take long for politicians, journalists and conservative think tanks to weigh in with armchair expertise suggesting SA’s reliance on renewable energy, particularly wind power, was to blame.

SA senator Nick Xenophon and Adelaide-based frontbencher Christopher Pyne both question how such a thing could happen in such a wealthy first-world nation in 2016.

A spokesperson for the electricity transmission company ElectraNet said there was no network in the world that could handle so much destruction, and that the pylons supporting high-voltage wires which collapsed met the relevant Australian Standard.

Another of the first to seize this excellent public relations opportunity was the Climate Council. The environmental group quickly pushed out a media release just after 9pm saying said the wild weather was “a disturbing preview of what’s likely to come” as climate change creates increasingly severe storms. They followed up today with a fact sheet bolstering these claims.

By afternoon it had become clear that there was little substance behind the speculative suggestions that South Australia’s large amount of renewable energy was partly to blame, or the suggestion that the blackout reflects incompetence on the part of Weatherill’s government or SA public servants.

Weatherill said he wished his fellow political warriors would wait for the ongoing disaster to at least be over before offering their largely unhelpful hot takes.

“If this had happened 20 years ago when there was no renewable energy the same thing would have happened,” he said, speaking on ABC radio. “That’s the advice we’ve received from the Australian Energy Market Operator. This is a weather event, not a renewable energy event.”

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