Spin Counts More Than Facts in SA Wind Farm Dispute

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

ON 28 SEPTEMBER AN EXTREME STORM lashed South Australia and the entire state lost power. How could this have happened?

It’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.’

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.

First published in Eureka Street.