One of the most telling interchanges at the Te Uku wind farm hearing occurred late last week between freelance researcher Ben Dunbar-Smith and commissioner chairman Michael Savage.
Hamilton resident Dunbar-Smith had just completed a rigorous academic overview of the importance of such wind farms in a global and national context, examining New Zealand’s need to enhance our diversity and security of energy supply.
Energy is a “master resource”, wind is a key source of renewable energy, and Waikato’s growth depends on affordable, reliable energy supply, Dunbar-Smith explained, in a power point presentation it seemed impossible to take issue with.
But, as he has done with every submitter, Savage brought it all back to Te Uku by asking his bog-standard opening question.
“Will you see the wind farm from your house?” he inquired.
“No,” Dunbar-Smith replied. “But should terrorists blow up an oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz, I will see oil at $300 a barrel and poverty in the streets if we don’t take action now,” he added, determined to contextualise the wind farm as a national issue as much as a regional one.
The conflict between our increasing national demand for energy and the concerns of those living within a turbine flicker of Te Uku, Te Mata and the Waitetuna Valley, is at the heart of issues before a Resource Management Act hearing which has been adjourned while Wel Networks addresses the most pointed submitter objections.
Should the Te Uku project get beyond the drawing board, a “Cultural Assessment Report” has recommended the farm be named “The Wel Wind Park Te Hauhiko o Wharauroa”.
There might be an even stronger case for calling it The Nimby Wind Farm.
Because the “not in my backyard” view rules in a district where many residents don’t mind wind farms in principle just not anywhere near them.
While the positive social effects of wind farms tend to be experienced by a large number of people living at a distance, the negative social effects are suffered by a small number of people living relatively closely.
In that respect, the experts advise that wind farm development in New Zealand is unfolding in a remarkably similar pattern to that of other countries.
There is a relatively slow start to development, followed by a period of intense activity where numerous wind farms are established on supposedly prime sites.
The public response follows a pattern of general acceptance of a wind farm being developed in an area, and even tolerance of a second one nearby.
“But when subsequent wind farms are proposed in the same geographic area, public support is often replaced by strident opposition,” Wellington landscape architect Boyden Evans told the Ngaruawahia hearing.
In the case of Wel Network’s Te Uku proposal, it is following on the heels of Ventus’ 22-turbine Taumatatotara project and the 42-turbine Taharoa C project (subject to Environment Court appeal) slightly to the south.
Evans said it was “almost impossible” to substantially shift people’s perceptions of wind farms, particularly with regard to proposals in their locality.
“In my experience of New Zealand wind farms and familiarity with overseas projects, someone who dislikes turbines or is opposed to wind farms, is highly unlikely to change their opinion in response to the assessment information provided by landscape and other professionals,” he said.
“Surveys carried out overseas and similar ones conducted in New Zealand clearly show that while there is overwhelming public support for wind energy, levels of support decline in areas where respondents live close to a proposed wind farm and, in particular, can see turbines from their homes.
“It is not surprising that landscape and especially visual issues are at the forefront on the siting of wind farms because people typically describe their feelings and experiences about places in terms of landscape, and, in particular, in terms of what they see.”
A report prepared by Christchurch consultants Taylor Baines on potential social effects of the wind farm concluded that “there do not appear to be any issues that are necessarily critical in the sense of being showstoppers”.
Mind you, that was before they’d heard Aotea submitter Sean Cox present his two-hour damnation of the project, which led to the two-month adjournment.
Taylor Baines saw no critical gaps in the coverage of issues by fellow consultants and said there “do not appear to be any fatal flaws, certainly when compared with other wind farms around the country”.
Funnily enough, the report did see dangers in Wel’s decision to delay the formation of a community liaison group until after consents have been granted.
That ran the risk of community opposition coalescing around a group of local residents, the report said.
“Experience elsewhere in the country shows that opposition groups are becoming increasingly well networked and feed off each other’s information.”
That may not necessarily be the case at Te Uku however. Many opposing submitters appear to be relatively isolated, in that they do not have computers, let alone internet access, and do not even read the Waikato Times.
If the evidence of electrical engineer Peter Curtis can be believed, many of them could find they have TV problems as well if the project gets the nod. Curtis told the hearing that the wind turbines could interfere with the television reception of 105 residences, by causing “ghosting”.
“In cases where this cannot be corrected with an upgraded aerial, broadcast satellite offers a simple, practical and affordable remedy.”
He recommended a consent condition that would require Wel Networks to restore reception quality at residences where independent experts had proven there was interference.
There may also be isolated instances of FM radio experiencing “excessive scatter” from the wind park, which could be cured by rooftop aerials.
But in a wind farm application where data has often been mind-numbing, the most astonishing statistics related to the apparent fragile state of the population’s mental health out on Waikato’s west coast.
Raglan doctor Fiona Bolden told the hearing 23 per cent of her registered patients have “a significant enough mental illness for it to be coded in their notes.”
She fretted about how a wind farm might mentally buffet her 4000 patients, spread from Aotea to Te Akau.
“Our mental health is very much affected when our environment is changed by something outside our control, particularly if we are constantly reminded of that by visual cues,” she said.
“For some people who will be most affected by this wind farm, it will constitute a life event for them and thus may cause harm to their mental health.”
Bolden noted the 137m turbines, proposed to be sited on top of the Wharauroa Plateau (which has elevations of 404-510m) would be only 100m lower than Mt Karioi.
But Dunbar-Smith pointed to results from Environment Waikato’s Environmental Awareness survey which showed 50 per cent of people said “yes” to the question: “Would you like to see a wind turbine out your window?’ Forty per cent said no, and 10 per cent were not sure.
Dunbar-Smith said rejection of the Te Uku site would be a significant setback to the national drive for renewable energy, given its strategic importance.
Wind, he said, was the second most important form of renewable energy for New Zealand behind geothermal energy, and he noted the cover of “Powering Our Future”, the New Zealand energy strategy to 2050, featured a host of wind turbines.
“We face a looming crisis with limited options, given there have been no new hydro dams built since the 1970s.”
By Bruce Holloway
5 December 2007
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