Hazelwood closure, complacency and catastrophe – why energy security must be a national priority

Neil Greet

THE recent catastrophic South Australian blackout was a global showcase for the obvious energy challenges we face as a nation and put energy security issues back on the front pages - but also prompted a lot of ideological wheel barrow pushing. 

Next - the confirmed closure of the Hazelwood power station in Victoria – and yet another glaring example of the urgent need for Government action to produce a national energy strategy with a clear way forward to transitioning to diverse power generation delivering assured energy security.

Hazelwood is responsible for approximately 3% of national emissions. It is outdated and nearing the end of its productive life. 

Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg, has sensibly requested the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel - with two deputies - develop an independent national blueprint to ensure our energy security as we transition to a lower emissions future. A preliminary report is to be completed by December. Engineers Australia supports this.

But let's not be naïve: this action has only become necessary because nationally we've been complacent about our energy security for years.

The last national energy security assessment was delivered five years ago. It concluded that our electricity sector faced significant challenges - most notably reliability and price pressures associated with the implementation of climate change and renewable energy policies - as well as 'the upgrading and refurbishment of ageing network infrastructure in the face of rising demand'.

The assessment found that market reforms and mechanisms associated with the Australian Government’s Clean Energy Future package would, however, assist in facilitating a flexible market response to these challenges.

In plain language - our energy security plan was left to the market and the application of the carbon tax. There was no real plan to transition, other than expecting some magic pixie dust.

The recent COAG Energy Council concluded that energy ministers must have as their primary responsibility the security, reliability and the affordability of the energy system for all Australians.  Energy Security is not something we think about after failure - it must be implicit in future policy development to prevent failure.

It's useful to compare the defence planning process with energy security planning.  Defence planners will assess the geopolitical environment, threats and then plan to meet those threats with a suite of affordable capabilities, expressed publicly through the Defence White Paper.

But when it comes to energy security, the 2015 Energy White Paper was produced before a national energy security assessment has been completed.

 As a consequence, the White Paper is limited by a narrow definition of energy security – examining only economic considerations - instead of a focus on the changed nature of national security, environmental challenges and merging systemic threats.

The Chief Scientist's review should embrace all issues affecting energy security.  Energy – is more than the electrical grid.

Engineers Australia recommends a focus on productivity and efficiency as demand has a huge effect on energy production and distribution. Attention should also be turned to transport energy - both in terms of security of supply - and better efficiency.

Melbourne and Sydney have appointed chief resilience officers who consider a range of sustainability factors and promote agile forms of governance. Engineers Australia welcomes this.

This is not something fixed in a couple of months!

As we make the lengthy but vital transition to a low-carbon economy, our energy systems are becoming more complex, interdependent and localised. At some point we must transition from our current electricity generation fleet to new generation modes and embrace future technology. 

 We need a comprehensive review, if we're to future proof our communities. That means building resilience: the ability to plan, prepare for, adapt to and recover from shocks like the South Australian extreme weather event and subsequent blackout. 

‘Trust me she’ll be right on the day mate’ isn't building resilience.

This Opinion Piece originally appeared in The Advertiser.