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The public perceptions driving SA's energy politics

Analysis

Fierce critics of renewable energy face a major political obstacle – most South Australians are firmly behind solar and wind power – but this shouldn’t mask the dangers lurking for the State Government. We examine the data and unpack some of the politics.

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We still don’t know all the detail about what caused South Australia’s statewide blackout.

The initial report by the Australian Energy Market Operator highlights numerous issues, not least of which was the shutdown of wind farms following the cut to major transmission lines, which led to an overload on the interconnector. The reason why the wind farms shut down remains unresolved, but that hasn’t stopped players on both sides of the ideological divide either blaming or exonerating renewable energy.

In the political wash-up, the people who count the most – voters – appear to remain strongly in support of renewables, and – rightly or wrongly – don’t blame the energy mix for the South Australian blackout.

Ironically, the high electricity prices in South Australia – a long-term frustration for locals and which many people blame on our high reliance on renewables – may be a factor in this  favourable public perception.

To ease the pain – and in response to generous government subsidies and feed-in tariffs – many of us have taken power generation into our own hands. As a result, SA has the highest per capita penetration of rooftop solar in Australia, and this includes  the middle socio-economic strata.

According to Energy Council data, a quarter of South Australian households have rooftop solar – which puts us just ahead of Queensland. In some Adelaide suburbs, solar penetration increases to 50 per cent.

Data on solar installations in September shows a national rebound in the solar market, with a huge spike in commercial 30kW-plus systems in South Australia.

Wind power is obviously a different beast, but South Australia also has one of the highest per capita wind generation figures in the world.

Multiple data sources show that we’ve not only embraced renewable energy, we’re happy with that choice.

The question is whether that will change after the blackout investigation is complete and, if doomsday scenarios come true, we face multiple power interruptions in the heat of summer.

Andrew Bunn, from Melbourne’s Essential Media, has run numerous polls of public opinion on renewable energy, including one published this week which shows that most Australians do not blame SA’s blackout on renewables.

He says self-sufficiency is a key appeal.

“We find that consistently over quite some years that people are very supportive of transitioning to renewable energy,” Bunn says.

“It’s almost regardless of how they feel about climate change. It’s related to cleaner energy, but also being self-sufficient and independent.”

That’s a message that hits home for South Australians. An Advertiser/Galaxy poll in September – before the blackout – found that 51 per cent of us blamed high electricity prices on the sale of ETSA under the Olsen Liberal Government nearly two decades ago, while only 15 per cent blamed renewables.

Essential’s latest national poll, released this week and taken after the release of the AEMO report into the SA blackout, found 60 per cent of the 1002 respondents believed the SA blackout would have occurred regardless of how the electricity was produced.

Of all Australian respondents, only 17 per cent believed the blackout was the result of too much reliance on renewable energy. Liberal National voters were more likely to blame renewable energy, but still only 25 per cent pinned it on wind and solar.

The research also found that: “Although a small sample, 72 per cent of South Australians thought it would have occurred regardless and 15 per cent thought it was a result of over-reliance on renewable energy.”

The finding is backed by an Advertiser/Galaxy poll taken as the AEMO report was being released and digested.

That poll, a larger local sample of 567 South Australians, found only 18 per cent blamed renewable energy, while 73 per cent pinned the event on the high winds bringing down transmission lines.

About a quarter blamed the Weatherill Government for the statewide outage, a similar proportion blamed energy network operators, while 34 per cent said it was an act of God. When asked what should be done to prevent a similar outage in the future, only 16 per cent wanted a reduction in the amount of renewable energy in the grid, while 73 per cent wanted more money spent on infrastructure.

The numbers aren’t surprising when you consider a range of polling over many years.

The Essential poll this week found 60 per cent of people believed renewable energy was the solution to our future energy needs, while 16 per cent viewed it as a threat.

This sort of result has been reflected in numerous other polls over past years. For example, a Lowy Institute poll released earlier this year found concern about global warming continuing to trend upwards, and 88 per cent of respondents agreed that “the use of fossil fuels is in decline and Australia should invest more in alternative energy sources”.

Climate Institute research published last month found that 59 per cent of respondents chose solar as their preferred energy source, 11 per cent chose wind, 4 per cent chose gas, while 3 per cent chose coal (as an aside, more South Australians favour nuclear – 14 per cent – as their preferred energy option, which is higher than respondents in other states). More than three-quarters of people believed that state governments should be offering incentives for renewable energy.

Newspoll, published in The Australian (not an ideological friend of renewable energy), has found similar sentiments, with an overwhelming majority in favour of renewable energy.

A Newspoll published this week found that 45 per cent of respondents were prepared to pay more for renewable energy. A similar Newspoll in 2014 found that 31 per cent were prepared to pay more.

The major political parties are also keeping their finger on the pulse of this issue, which is potentially damaging to both.

InDaily understands that Labor polling in South Australia before this year’s federal election found that renewable energy was a positive issue for the party, and one of the few negatives for independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who has expressed reservations about wind power and its impact on power prices.

The evidence seems overwhelming that renewable energy is a positive among voters, which may explain Premier Jay Weatherill’s aggressive defence of wind power against political attacks from the Federal Government and fellow ideological travellers in the wake of the blackout. The state Liberals have been more circumspect about attacking renewables than their federal counterparts, but have been no less aggressive in targeting the State Government for its inability to “keep the lights on”.

The black hole in public opinion research on renewables is businesses – and the issue is huge for them, including energy-intensive mid-sized businesses that rely on the electricity grid and for which solar may not yet offer a viable solution to their needs.

A voter may happily reduce their bills at home with rooftop solar and, increasingly, back-up battery storage, but if they lose their job due to an energy crisis, that could be a game-changer.

Flinders University political scientist Haydon Manning agrees the huge uptake of rooftop solar in this state is a key reason why South Australians are positive about renewables.

However, he warns that Labor will suffer badly if investigations by AEMO shoot down Weatherill’s claims about the innocence of wind generation in the breadth and depth of the blackout.

“My view is that South Australia has one of the highest uptakes of solar rooftop, so there’s a deep personal commitment by many,” Manning says.

“So it’s not a surprise to me that there’s not a backlash against renewables.”

However, he said the AEMO findings would be crucial to the political debate to come in the lead-up to the 2018 state election, and the risk was mostly to Weatherill’s Labor Government.

“If Marshall was going to stand there as a climate change skeptic, that would just be plain dumb. But to say that the overall electricity grid and planning (for the shift to renewables) has been stuffed up… then you would reckon he’d be on a winner.”

The coming summers will be watched nervously by Labor.

Whatevever the cause, if South Australia suffers brownouts and blackouts in extreme temperatures, “that’s going to be front-page news”.

Time will tell whether our long love affair with renewable energy – and our long memories about the ETSA sale – will be challenged in a way which tips the political scales.

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