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Statewide blackout plunges Australia into renewable energy debate

By Tom Westbrook | SYDNEY

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 smelter.

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.