Australia’s energy regulator seized control of the national power grid Wednesday, suspending a market-based system roiled by soaring prices and the threat of widespread blackouts.
The Australian Energy Market Operator said it had “suspended the spot market” for electricity in “all regions” because it was no longer providing “secure and reliable supply”.
The electricity used to power Australian homes is usually bought and sold across the populous east of the country, a system designed to lower wholesale costs and diversify supply.
But the market has been thrown into turmoil by a series of supply and demand shocks, and the regulator is now stepping in to set prices and marshal distribution.
Australia is one of the world’s top three producers of gas and coal, but about a quarter of the east coast’s coal-fired power stations are currently offline because of outages and maintenance.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also seen export demand for Australian gas spike, mopping up any potential surplus tat could ease the domestic shortfall.
The supply issues have been exacerbated by a cold snap across the east coast, prompting calls from electricity providers for households to conserve energy.
Much of the east coast — including the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, home to more than 10 million people in total — have been warned to expect blackouts as demand threatens to outstrip supply.
The Australian Energy Market Operator had already intervened repeatedly to prevent blackouts, ordering companies to produce more and capping prices.
“The best interests of consumers will always come first,” said energy minister Chris Bowen, foreshadowing the move earlier in the day.
His recently elected Labor government has blamed the crisis on the previous conservative administration, which aggressively championed coal projects while largely shunning renewables.
Fossil fuels provided an estimated 71 percent of Australia’s electricity last year, and coal alone 51 percent, government figures show.