The wind rush is on. Plans to erect sweeping wind farms are being unfurled at a rate of knots. But is this really clean green energy, or just another case of greedy corporates trashing our landscapes for profit? Anton Oliver argues it’s about time New Zealanders woke up to the dark side of wind power.
Forests of turbines spinning on distant hills: in these carbon-aware times, the glory of wind farms is being touted as the one-stop solution to all our energy ills. So aggressive has been the rush to build them that a week doesn’t seem to go by without a new application for an industrial-scale turbine site going before a local council for consideration under the Resource Management Act (RMA), with a mad green fervour.
You’d be forgiven, then, if it escaped your notice that wind power was part of the problem, not the solution, when the Electricity Commission last week announced that we’re teetering on the brink of yet another major electricity shortage.
The emergency button that is Whirinaki’s diesel-burning power plant (the official national standby) had been pushed, initiated by high wholesale electricity prices thanks to equipment failure at Taranaki’s combined-cycle plant, high water temperatures in the Waikato River forcing Huntly’s coal-burning plant to trim back production and becalmed summer skies over Manawatu meaning its plethora of wind turbines were as useful as wet paper toothpicks.
It may also have escaped your attention that as we rush to cover the country in wind farms (more precisely, as the energy oligarchs rush to gather the armfuls of carbon credits being dangled before them by government as a green bribe), in Europe far greater scrutiny is being applied to the imposition of these vast energy factories upon the environment.
Last week it was leaked that plans for the largest land-based wind farm in Britain, a 181-turbine development in the Scottish Hebrides, are to be vetoed by Scottish ministers due to likely negative impacts on wild birdlife. Likewise, a 27-turbine project in the rolling uplands of Cumbria, England an area with similar tourism and landscape values to Central Otago was deemed “a step too far” in the quest for green energy.
You won’t have read about it here because it’s not in the interests of this country’s major power players to tell you. The Labour-led government has its blinkers on trying to make up for its gross miscalculation of our Kyoto obligations come 2012 (which, rather than deliver us a profit as Labour initially declared, will, according to Business New Zealand projections, cost us as much as $3 billion), frantically searching for alternative revenue streams hence its renewed interest in carbon credits and emissions trading to pay for its incompetence.
Based on the evidence so far, its stated energy and climate change policy to be 90% renewable in our energy generation by the year 2025 should not be seen as green or carbon friendly, but a state-directed, revenue-motivated assault on New Zealand’s natural environment.
The least the government should have done is to come up with a sensible, national, overarching strategy for wind energy generation in New Zealand: instead energy generators including the government’s own SOE, Meridian Energy have seized upon the lack of guidelines in a frantic wind rush for the most cost-effective sites.
Hang on, isn’t the RMA supposed to safeguard us from the excesses of corporate developers?
While the RMA is touted as being a democratic process, the reality is that the success of an appellant’s case comes down to how much money they can raise; since most don’t have a spare $100,000-$500,000 in their coffers to pay a QC and their support staff.
An opponent as financially rotund as Meridian, meanwhile, has a team of lawyers and expensive experts and can afford a cartel of QCs to browbeat local councillors and other beleaguered individuals seriously out of their depth who tend to make up resource consent hearing panels.
Last week, the Crown, via the Ministry for the Environment, made a whole-of-government submission supporting Project Hayes (Meridian’s controversial 176 turbines, proposed for Central Otago, which is headed for the Environment Court).
It cited wind generation as being of national interest since it “ensures” security of energy supply by providing additional generation capacity and diversification of electricity production methods and, secondly, supposedly helps New Zealand address climate change issues.
Yet no one is asking the hard questions of a government desperate to sell itself to an increasingly green-aware public in election year.
As the fine print of the Energy Commission release indicated, wind energy is not reliable. No one knows when it will blow. At best, crude statistics are used to predict how much it will blow on average over very long time frames (months, years). Wind generation cannot be calculated with any security: will it blow tomorrow morning, Friday evening or next Wednesday at 6pm when Huntly’s going to be offline or the hydro lakes are low?
New Zealanders are sold on the concept that all wind is green, therefore large-scale wind is the panacea for all our woes. But wind farms like Project Hayes are attractive to the generator oligarchy only because of economics of scale and carbon credits: together they make industrial-sized wind not only financially viable, but exceedingly profitable.
Basing security of supply, meanwhile, on something that is as inherently unpredictable is somewhere south of foolish. Overseas experience has already shown that for every 1000 megawatts of wind generation installed less than 10% can be calculated as firm generating capacity, therefore increasing rather than decreasing traditional energy supply (often carbon-emitting) because of the fundamental problem: when the wind stops blowing, where does the power come from?
Meridian and other generators continue to regurgitate their standard spiel that this or that wind farm is “capable of producing enough electricity to power 100,000 homes”. Try supplying Wellington’s Courtenay Pl, Lambton Quay, the Beehive and ancillary government buildings with wind power only for a year and in December ask them how they got on.
Wind surges also cause massive voltage and frequency increases, threatening the integrity and stability of the grid (which, under Cook Strait, even last week had to be held at a paltry 400MW to stop the system from overloading). Of course, sudden decreases in wind have to be replaced by alternative, ready-to-go energy standbys such as Whirinaki. Not the kind of admission we tend to hear from energycoms as they try to push their wind schemes on to an unsuspecting public.
Leaving aside the belief that it will have unacceptable environmental and tourism impacts on an iconic slice of Otago, Meridian’s Project Hayes wind farm has yet to disclose any alternative methods for generating electricity when it isn’t blowing, nor how the grid will handle the load placed on it, nor even some basic science collected from the site to back up their claims that this is a good thing for the country as a whole.
They haven’t even disclosed wind data collected from the designated land: no one knows how windy it is, when it blows and, more importantly, when it doesn’t.
None of this will stop Meridian claiming its carbon credits, of course. Surely we shouldn’t be expected to trust all their proclamations in good faith?
Meridian’s relationship with Rio Tinto Aluminium perhaps best exemplifies both the government’s complicitness and its hypocrisy. Opponents of Project Hayes have been told that most of the electricity generated will satisfy local demand. But with energy schemes south of the Waitaki River accounting for 20% of the national supply (despite just 7% of the population living there), clearly this is not the whole truth.
Meridian has a contract to supply Rio Tinto (formerly known as Comalco, an aluminium factory in Tiwai Pt, Bluff) continuously until 2030. Meridian, Transpower and Comalco have a ring-fenced agreement that sees them sit outside normal energy regulation, much to the chagrin of the other energy generators.
However, Meridian has a problem: it can’t supply Comalco with the amounts of electricity that it is obliged to, so it has subcontracted the supply of this shortfall to Contact Energy which, via power generated from the Roxburgh and Clyde dams, charges exorbitant fees, safe in the knowledge that Meridian must honour its commercial obligations to Comalco.
Project Hayes isn’t about securing supply for ordinary New Zealanders shivering in their wintry cottages. It’s not even about reducing carbon emissions, as the government would clearly have you believe. The energy generated by Project Hayes is intended to eventually remove Contact Energy from the ring-fenced arrangement, with the added bonus that Meridian can sell millions of dollars of carbon credits on the overseas carbon markets.
Is this what our SOEs have become? Revenue-generating engines that externalise our environmental and cultural heritage so that the current government can offer bribery tax cuts come election year?
In Europe, countries like Britain are under far greater pressure than New Zealand to reduce energy emissions yet, unlike in New Zealand, they’re not going to trade one form of environmental desecration for another.
Coming soon: A wind farm of egregious proportions on environmentally-significant landscapes to a community near you. Whether it’s in your best interests is another question entirely.
3 February 2008
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