(Adds detail on steelmaker, industry fallout)
By Tom Westbrook
SYDNEY, Sept 29 An unprecedented power outage
across South Australia state has stopped production at major
miners BHP Billiton and OZ Minerals and left
one steelmaker struggling to prevent molten steel from hardening
and damaging its factory.
The statewide outage sparked political calls on Thursday for
an inquiry into the power sector and questions over the state's
reliance on renewable energy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
said it was a "wake-up call" to ensure energy security.
Although power has been restored to 90 percent of the state
after Wednesday's statewide blackout, caused by severe storms,
industrial areas north and west of the state capital Adelaide
and the steel city of Whyalla are still without power.
Whyalla steelmaker Arrium Ltd said it had a blast
furnace and four ladles full of molten steel and desperately
needed to restore power.
"The situation is quite serious and a lot will depend on
what happens in the next hour or two," said a company spokesman.
The outage has halted more than 300,000 tonnes of annual
copper production capacity and knocked out the state's only lead
In the city of Port Pirie, the 185,000-tonnes-per-year lead
smelter run by Nyrstar NV will be out of action for up
to two weeks, the company said on Thursday.
The blackout of the country's fifth most populous state,
with 1.7 million people, not only disrupted miners and
steelmakers but closed ports and halted public transport.
"Let's focus now and take this incident as a real wake-up
call...lower emissions is very important but it must be
consistent with energy security," said Australian Prime Minister
Coal-fired power plants dominate the country's power sector
resulting in Australia being one of the world's biggest carbon
emitters on a per capita basis. Renewable energy has struggled
to increase its footprint in recent years due to scepticism over
climate change amongst some the country's leading politicians.
South Australia, a major wine producer and traditional
manufacturing hub, is one of the few states with a heavy
reliance on renewable energy. Wind power provides roughly 40
percent of the state's electricity supply.
RENEWABLE ENERGY QUESTIONED
"Questions have to be asked: Is their over-reliance on
renewable energy exacerbating their problems and the capacity to
have a secure power supply," Australia's Deputy Prime Minister
Barnaby Joyce, a climate change sceptic, told Australian
Broadcasting Corp radio on Thursday.
South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon said an
inquiry should examine whether the power failure could have been
avoided if more gas-burning power plants had been on standby.
Power experts said the blackout was unavoidable regardless
of South Australia's energy supply
The blackout happened after strong winds destroyed major
powerlines, causing a surge across the grid. The network and
links to neighbouring Victoria, from which South Australia can
access power, shut down to prevent damage to infrastructure.
"For the Prime Minister to use the storm as an opportunity
to slowdown the uptake of renewables is reprehensible," Greens
politician Adam Bandt told Reuters.
Australia's renewables have been under political pressure in
recent years. The government had planned to cut funding to its
renewable energy agency by a A$1.3 billion, in an effort to plug
a major budget shortfall, but was forced to reduce the cut to
A$500 million in September to gain parliamentary support.
Australia wants to double its large-scale renewable energy
generation to 33,000 gigawatt hours by 2020, which means solar,
wind and hydro-electricity would have to make up nearly a
quarter of power generation by then.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Writing by Jonathan Barrett;
Editing by Michael Perry)