Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

Another Consensus-Decision-Making Failure: Australia’s Electricity Blackouts!

This past January, South Australia, one of the six states that make up the country of Australia, suffered a severe electricity outage. One month later, the city of Adelaide within South Australia had a major electricity black out that impacted 40,000 residents.  In each case, the state government simply said that the cause was “lack of sufficient generating capacity, given the unusual heat the region was experiencing.”

So what are the real facts behind the blackouts?  A couple of years ago, the parliament of South Australia decided to impose a renewable energy target of 50% on the electric utilities by the year 2025.  This led to the emergence of wind turbine farms, and the closing of the last of the coal-fired power plants in South Australia.   Your typical wind turbine is rated as generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity; but actual experience shows that averagely, you get 30% of that amount due to calm days and the fact that they must be shut down when there are thunderstorms (lightening) or very high wind speeds.  What South Australia experienced in early 2017 was a lot of very high temperatures with minimal wind, and many powerful thunderstorms.

So…who is responsible for the fact that on any given day, the adequacy of the electricity capacity of South Australia is dependent on the weather! Well, the answer is the parliament.  In that government body, the climate change proponents got enough votes to achieve a consensus, and it proceeded to close its coal-fired plants and bet on wind turbines.

Stepping back, the core problem here was that nobody felt responsible for doing the analysis of the resulting electricity-generating capacity, and then making appropriate changes in the plan to make sure the state of South Australia would always have more than adequate electricity, even in extreme weather conditions.  Maybe a staff group did such an analysis of resulting capacity, but if so, it was obviously ignored. Clearly the parliament exhibited all the classic problems with consensus decision making, namely:

1.) No specific person is designated as the leader, given the authority to make decisions, and held responsible for the results.  Thus, no one feels the need to really dig into the facts and all the implications.  Each person is just one of many involved in the group, so each participant typically feels they don’t have to do all the work of understanding all the details.

2.) Peer pressure often forces the group into a point of view that is popular but flawed.  In the case of South Australia, the peer pressure was undoubtedly coming from the climate change proponents, and to drag one’s heels would lead to an accusation of not being part of the main stream.  The flaw was the lack of homework on what wind turbines can and cannot do.

3.) Persuasive personalities often sway a group, even if their opinions are not sound.  For any group, there is a risk that the most aggressive and charismatic will lead, but quite possibly down the wrong path.

Net, for any problem or task, it is vital to have one person feel responsible and accountable to achieve a successful result.  Consensus decision making is dangerous!

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