Spin counts more than facts in SA wind farm dispute

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On 28 September an extreme storm lashed South Australia and the entire state lost power. How could this have happened?

StormIt's a question that has occupied the country for the last three weeks as politicians and commentators have peddled their unqualified opinions in an escalating culture war about the role of renewable energy.

Most of the coverage has been pure speculation, of course. No one really knew what had happened until Wednesday this week, when the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released its updated report on the events leading to the blackout.

Even now, there are more questions than answers. And they won't be cleared up until AEMO's final report five months away, by which time any misinformation will be entrenched in people's minds. So before looking at the facts, let's analyse the spin, which will have greater sway on public opinion in the long run.

It's well established that misinformation has a lingering effect on people's views, even after a falsehood has been corrected. Psychologists call this the 'continued influence effect', and it's been demonstrated many times.

In one famous 1994 experiment (pdf) about a fictitious warehouse fire, people were exposed to misinformation which implied negligence on the part of the business owners. The misinformation was then completely retracted. Despite understanding and accepting the correction, people still attributed negligence to the owners, referring to the misinformation they knew to be wrong.

In a later experiment, the researchers found that misinformation with a causal story — a reason why something happened — is especially persistent. It isn't enough to retract or refute a causal story. It has to be replaced with another causal story.

As psychology academics Stephan Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a guide to debunking myths, 'people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.'

 

"How much of this official explanation will filter down to public opinion? Bugger all. It's too technical and complicated. As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, it's just the gist — the causal story — that has a lingering effect."

 

That brings us to the coverage of the South Australian blackout. In the immediate aftermath, vested interests pushed their preferred explanation — their causal story — well before the facts were established. The federal Coalition government wants to skewer Labor for taking a 50 per cent renewable energy target to the last election, so it's been trying to associate the blackout with what the Prime Minister calls the 'ambitious' and 'aggressive' renewable energy targets of Labor state governments.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was even less subtle. On radio the following morning he implied two reasons for the blackout — wind turbines are intermittent so they can't meet demand, and they switch off during strong winds. 'It doesn't work when there's no wind and it doesn't work when there's excessive wind — and it obviously wasn't working too well last night because they had a blackout,' he said.

Labor state governments, on the other hand, want to defend their renewable energy targets, so they've been blaming a 'once in 50 year storm' that blew over transmission lines. (Increasingly federal Labor has been going on the offensive, recently teaming up with the Greens to launch a senate inquiry into phasing out coal.)

Many large coal and gas companies prefer a go-slow transition to clean energy, so they've argued that renewables have made the grid less secure. The Australian Energy Council has framed South Australia's energy mix as a 'living experiment', best not repeated. Environment organisations meanwhile want stronger action on climate change, so they've been questioning if our electricity grid will cope with more extreme weather in the future.

How do all these claims stack up against AEMO's report released on Wednesday? The report laid out a cascading chain of events, which we can look at in sequence.

The first cause was obviously the storm, which downed transmission lines. In a footnote, AEMO concedes that actual wind speeds were much higher than forecast, raising questions about preparedness for extreme weather. These transmission faults led to six 'voltage disturbances', triggering safety settings on nine wind farms.

When they detect low voltage, wind turbines switch to a different mode to 'ride through' the fault. AEMO says the wind farms in question shut down when between three to six disturbances were detected. It's a software issue, easily changed. In response, Siemens has already updated the settings on some South Australian wind farms.

But while nine wind farms shut down, the state's fossil fuel generators kept running.

Overall it's mixed news. AEMO explicitly says the 'intermittent' nature of wind wasn't a factor, which refutes Barnaby Joyce's claim that wind turbines can't meet demand, the main criticism of renewables. But the report firmly implicates wind power in the blackout, due to triggered safety settings. This buttresses the coal and gas lobby's point that South Australia is a 'living experiment' and there are engineering challenges with integrating high levels of wind power into the grid.

Next, AEMO says the sudden loss of wind power overloaded the Heywood interconnector with Victoria, which disconnected to protect itself. Then the whole state went black. This will feed into the federal government's energy security frame.

How much of this official explanation will filter down to public opinion? Bugger all. It's too technical and complicated. As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, it's just the gist — the causal story — that has a lingering effect.

What most people will remember in six months is the images of crumpled transmission towers. From there they'll leap to the simplest explanation: the storm blew over power lines. Beyond that they'll have a vague sense that wind turbines were involved. Lacking the details or expertise to understand why, they'll assume the reason is that the wind doesn't blow the same strength all the time, even though AEMO dismissed wind variability as a factor.

Essential Media is tracking public opinion on this issue, and the most recent poll showed 60 per cent of people thought 'the power black out would have occurred regardless of how the electricity was produced'. Only 17 per cent blamed renewables. That will change after this latest report, as more media stories show pictures of wind farms with the words 'blackout' in the headline, and people become familiar with the new theory. But I doubt it will shift completely.

My bet? This debate will be decided by the number of times stories show pictures of crumpled transmission towers versus the number of times they show pictures of stationary wind turbines. A bit cynical, perhaps. But that's how spin works, and because the actual explanation is so technical, it's the spin that will count.

 


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image source: BOM

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change


 

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Existing comments

One can only hope that the public is more intelligent and committed to renewable energy, despite freak weather conditions which hit South Australia especially hard, than your final paragraph portends, Greg. South Australia faced significant challenges during that storm. Crumpled transmission towers can be fixed and life will go on. It's a good story to talk about at backyard bbq's.
Pam | 22 October 2016


A good overview. Thanks. What struck me the most was that while were reduced to candles and battery-powered radios, the opinions were already being stridently broadcast. The chief offenders IMO were Turnbull and Xenaphon. I think even Abbott would have had the decency to wait until after the crisis had passed. Your observations about 'spin' ring true for the 'big picture' but another factor to be taken into account is the 'on the ground' anecdote. For example, I had a conversation with an ex-ETSA (the now-privatised electricity utility) who was involved in checking and maintaining the towers. In short, he suggested (as part of the privatisation process) tower maintenance was neglected and it was inevitable that a strong wind would blow some of them over eventually.
Tony | 24 October 2016


The real cause of the blackout is the privatisation of the electricity market. Private Generators do not want to have units spinning in reserve without getting paid. Private company just shut down two coal fired stations in SA because they were uneconomic. Look deeper...who owns the electricity assets!?!
Michael | 24 October 2016


The storm event was quite severe so it was inevitable that transmission lines would have been blown down, causing the system to collapse. However with privatization the buzz word in today's economic speak and profit the prime motive, cutting maintenance to increase profit equals disaster when an extreme event happens. As Greg observed, despite the politicians getting on the anti renewable band wagon, I suspect most people will see the event for what it actually was- a severe weather caused failure of supply. Having just been in the Iberian Peninsula,(Spain/Portugal) recently, the number of wind farms we saw was very impressive. They look quite nice too!
Gavin | 24 October 2016


"that's how spin works,.... it's the spin that will count." Perhaps we are too lenient when politicians use 'spin'. Why don't we say they 'lie'? After all the main ingredient of a lie is to deceive, which is their intention. Spin is just an example of the unscrupulous saying, 'The best lie is the truth.' Find some true fact that will have the same effect as a lie, of misleading people .
Robert Liddy | 24 October 2016


Congratulations to Greg Foyster. This is a great article that challenges the distortions and lies of the private vested interests in the energy production business and their very conservative political backers eg Barnaby Joyce, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. The fact is they will resort to any trick to cloud the facts about how they are supporting fossil fuel energy production even though meteorological and environmental scientists are warning us about rapid climate change and the increasing contamination of our water, air, soil and food. It is time that we thought about nationalising our energy production to get the best outcomes for people as a whole. Tragically, most executives of private corporations are prepared to jeopardise the OH&S of their workers, the environmental health of members of the public, the world's weather system and the survivability of life on the planet just to maximise their profits. As a global community, we need to do what is necessary for the next generations and ignore the misleading propaganda and irresponsible actions of the big polluters and their conservative political backers.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 October 2016


In response to Michael and Gavin, "Privatisation", by itself, is too simple an explanation. Splitting up a System into parts is the other factor. The problems with privatisation are the loss of control by the community and the private need to generate profit. The problems with splitting a system among several owners are competition and complexity of management (all the extra management and legal infrastructure to communicate between the parts of what should be a whole). Both contribute to a loss of system integrity - wind owners compete with coal, gas and hydro owners. System Integrity is no longer any one entity's responsibility. Had the energy system not been privatised and partitioned, it would have been ETSA's job to manage the whole: the development of ALL energy sources and the corresponding need to continue to design stability into the system. (This loss of integrity has also led to today's NBN - I believe Telecom Australia were experimenting with fibre to the node in 1992 - almost 25 years ago!)
Peter Horan | 24 October 2016


The complex engineering issues involved in the dynamic stability of an extensive thinly connected alternating current power network defy glib analyses such as we've seen to date. Exact historical data and very sophisticated simulation in great detail will be necessary before engineers could confidently attribute the causes and mechanisms involved in the blackout. Such analyses are far more intricate than the simple comparisons of generating capacity available and the types of generation involved to the load at the time. Fortunately such system-wide network outages are rare, but have occurred occasionally in other parts of Australia, and in USA and Canada. The fragmentation of responsibilities caused by privatization of utility systems, and the potential effects of a natural motive to optimise profits may also have come into play.
Jim Boyle | 28 October 2016


Sorry to burst your Green Energy Bubble Greg .The last 3 blackouts and power disruptions in SA let alone price increases that trying to accomodate at totally unpredictable times 40% of Windpower is totally unsustainable. Without the massive subsidies and the insane unachievable 33,000 GWh by 2020 LRET there would not another single Windturbine put up.For all of your followers here please take the time to look up stopthesethings.com and you will soon see that Windpower is a total failure as a means of supplying Affordable Reliable Electricity.Not many understand that without constant BaseLoad power Windturbines cannot function at all. Give up now Greg you are flogging a dead horse.
Bill Quinn | 30 October 2016


Had the remaining generation (a mix of wind, solar & thermal) after loss of the link to Victoria been all thermal, there would have been a better chance of the auto load shedding scheme 'arresting' the sudden fall in frequency and avoiding a state-wide blackout. High-speed thermal plant inherently has more inertia and is much better suited to 'ride through' system disturbances. It is worth noting that the transmission line failures did not seem to directly disconnect any (or much) generation; it was the attendant voltage disturbances (caused by short circuits on the lines when the towers were blown over) that were not ridden through by many of the wind generators.
Chris | 02 November 2016