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Warning of future blackouts as politics rules energy and climate debate

Victoria and NSW have been warned they could follow South Australia in being hit by electricity blackouts in years ahead unless Canberra comes up with a bipartisan national plan to deal with energy and climate change.

The Turnbull government leapt on the latest in a string of South Australian blackouts, which hit about 40,000 properties for 45 minutes during extreme heat early Wednesday night, to accuse the state Labor government of relying too heavily on renewable energy.

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SA Government passes blame on power outage

The South Australian government has hit back, blaming the national energy market operator for the blackout that affected 90,000 Adelaide homes and businesses.

The attack dominated parliamentary question time, with Treasurer Scott Morrison brandishing a lump of coal – a sign of his party's support for more generation from the high-emissions fossil fuel, which he contrasted with federal Labor's 50 per cent renewable energy target.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Labor's ideological approach to renewable energy was turning off the lights in Adelaide. "They have failed to deliver the security of energy that Australians need," he said.

Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the state needed to look at every option to stabilise the system, including reopening the 32-year-old Northern coal-fired station that closed last year and is already partly demolished.

But South Australian Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis blamed the blackout on a "massive, catastrophic failure" of the National Electricity Market. He pointed to the state's gas-fired power plant at Pelican Point, which could have provided the power needed but was not called on to run at full capacity.

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"I think what you're seeing at a national level is an ignorance that the problem that's occurring here is coming to a city near you on the eastern seaboard soon," he said.

Energy industry leaders and experts warned the government was incorrect to solely blame the South Australian government for the electricity crisis and called for a national solution.

While South Australia backs clean energy, the overwhelming driver of the state's high percentage of wind energy - approaching 40 per cent of local generation - had been the national renewable energy target, which has bipartisan support. South Australia has many of the best sites for wind generation in the country and had drawn a high proportion of the investment.

It has happened as nine coal plants have closed in seven years, with no policy to drive what should replace them. Victoria's Hazelwood plant will follow next month, though analysts believe it should not lead to blackouts if the market functions as it should.

Australian Energy Council chief Matthew Warren, representing 21 electricity and gas businesses, reiterated calls for a bipartisan energy and climate plan to guide companies on what they should be investing in.

"Politics has turned this into the Punch and Judy show. We're trying to get something that is workable. We have politicians from both sides accusing their opponents of being ideologically driven and political, but then both sides are guilty of that in the next sentence," he said.

Tony Wood, energy program director at the Grattan Institute, said no players in the debate were blameless, but the Turnbull government should be called out for blaming the state government.

"I will criticise crazy state-based renewable energy targets, but this is not the result of a South Australian policy," he said.

Mr Wood said the available gas plant lying dormant when it was needed was either a failure of the rules governing the national electricity grid, or the way the market operator was interpreting them.

Chief scientist Alan Finkel is running an inquiry into the national electricity grid that was commissioned after a statewide South Australian blackout in September. An interim report in December flagged the need for changes.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said, with no national solutions being offered and the market operator unable to guarantee security of supply, the state was considering options to intervene in the national market to ensure supply.

The market operator has warned of more potential problems during hot weather ahead, with the possibility of a blackout in NSW on Friday afternoon.

Accusations flared over why the gas-plant was not in full operation when it was known the wind would not be blowing on Wednesday - whether the market operator had failed to direct it to run, or plant owner Engie had failed to respond to a call for bids to sell power into the grid.

Labor environment spokesman Mark Butler said Mr Frydenberg should stop playing politics with the national energy crisis and make sure the market operator was doing its job.

Mr Frydenberg said South Australia had the power on Wednesday to ask for more generation to be operating. He said he had asked the market operator for an urgent report into what happened.

Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox called for consideration of energy users of all sizes being offered an incentive to slightly cut back usage at critical times.

"We need both long-term reform for a market that delivers affordable, reliable and clean energy, and urgent shorter term measures to ease the current crunch," he said.

with wires

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