Wind power is the most environmentally sound way of meeting New Zealand’s expanding energy needs. Right, says a Government struggling to meet its Kyoto commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Wrong, say opponents of the plan to build the southern hemisphere’s largest wind farm in a remote corner of Central Otago.
Snow flakes are swirling across the top of a hilltop plateau carpeted with snow and stumpy clumps of tussock. Facial muscles and fingers stiffen in the icy cold.
Perched beside a rocky outcrop, painter Grahame Sydney is training his camera on shafts of sunlight piercing a distant storm cloud. The result is the second photograph above.
We are on top of the Lammermoor Range, part of the squat, muscular Rock and Pillar Range at the bottom end of Central Otago. We have got here by bumping up an icy, snow-covered track in a borrowed four-wheel-drive ute. Sydney, whose landscapes have become synonymous with Central Otago, wants to show us what is special about the rolling hills on which Meridian Energy, the country’s biggest electricity generator, is planning to erect up to 176 turbines, each up to 160 metres tall four times the height of Wellington’s Brooklyn wind turbine. The track is the Old Dunstan Road, the route used by the gold miners who poured into Central Otago in the winter of 1862. The road is closed in winter, but Sydney who is filming a documentary about the road, is a regular visitor – something that may surprise critics who accuse him of making a fuss about a part of the region he has never bothered to paint.
His response is that the site chosen for the windfarm is “a vital segment of an entire body of landscape that I love. I have not set about systematically painting every corner but that does not mean I don’t love it.”
The Lammermoors are not as celebrated as other parts of a region which has inspired generations of artists and writers including Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston, Janet Frame, and James K Baxter with its soaring mountains, wide horizon, and ever changing light and weather. But they have a wild beauty of their own.
Meridian says the scene depicted in Sydney’s photograph is not an outstanding natural landscape the term used in the Resource Management Act to denote areas worthy of special protection. Sydney, a forceful, neatly dressed 60-year-old, who looks more like a prosperous local businessman than a painter, says it is. “What people don’t get is that beauty does not have to be scenic majesty like mountains and lakes. There are many different types of beauty. Some people would look on this and just see bleak barren wasteland, but I see it as something unique and something very particular and special to Central Otago. I love it up here. I find it absolutely exhilarating.”
So exhilarating that he has put aside his paints and his brushes to head Save Central, the lobby group established to oppose Project Hayes. The group has a five-person management group and 200 active supporters, he says. They include poet Brian Turner, former All Black Anton Oliver and former All Black captain David Kirk, chief executive of Fairfax Media. Last month, Kirk personally paid for a full-page advertisement in The Sunday Star-Times , decrying Project Hayes as “vandalism”.
Save Central’s goal is to protect not just the 92 square kilometres on which Meridian has applied for approval to erect its windfarm and the Old Dunstan Road, but also the views from other parts of the region.
In evidence to the Central Otago District Council last year Meridian acknowledged the turbines each of which will have a rotor roughly the size of a Boeing 747 would have an adverse visual impact on the nearby Paerau Valley. But it produced photographic mock-ups suggesting that from other vantage points the mountain block on which they would be arrayed would remain the dominant visual feature.
However, Sydney says the windfarm will “industrialise” the landscape for vast distances. “What happens when you put that number of wind turbines of that size in the landscape is that they actually become the landscape. You don’t see anything else really.”
Meridian’s arguments in favour of the scheme are well known. Demand for electricity is growing at slightly more than 2 per cent a year. Most of the rivers that can be dammed to create large hydro power schemes have been dammed. Nuclear power is politically unacceptable. Coal-fired stations pollute the environment. Future supplies of natural gas are uncertain and the Government has introduced a 10-year moratorium on the building of new thermal stations.
Wind is an environmentally friendly, cost-effective alternative, that dovetail neatly with the hydro schemes that provide 60 per cent of New Zealand’s electricity. When the wind blows water can be “banked” in hydro lakes. When the wind stops the hydro turbines can be started.
The Lammermoor Range is the ideal location for a large wind farm remote and windy. With a maximum capacity of 630 megawatts, Meridian expects it to produce about as much electricity a year as the 432megawatt Clyde Dam about 2000 gigawatt hours.
The company’s arguments have been broadly accepted by politicians keen to be seen to be doing something about global warming.
But Sydney, who freely admits he would prefer a nuclear power station on the outskirts of Auckland to turbines in Central Otago, says Meridian has overstated the potential of the site and is ignoring several important facts. In a region famous for ice on puddles, frozen lakes and curling, the wind cannot be relied upon, particularly in winter when demand is highest. Wind power does not dovetail with hydro power. “Everybody knows in the years when there is not much rain it is because the westerlies have not come. A dry year for rain is a calm year for wind.” As a result the country will be faced with the expense of building additional “baseload” capacity because wind power cannot be relied upon at any given moment.
Others critics of the project, notably electricity engineer Brian Leyland have questioned the economics of windfarming. Leyland declined to be interviewed for this story because he is due to give evidence to the Environment Court about Project Hayes but he has previously ridiculed electricity generators” estimates of the cost of producing wind power.
Meridian puts the cost of wind power at between 6.2 and 8.5 cents a unit, fractionally more than hydro and less than geothermal, gas and coal. But Leyland told this newspaper last year that the Electricity Commission put the cost of windpower at around 11c a unit. That was about twice the cost of gas, coal and nuclear alternatives and to it had to be added another 2c a unit for the for the generation of back-up thermal power. He forecast steep price increases. “It’s crazier than anything I have seen in 50 years in the industry.” Meridian is keeping most of the information it has about wind levels at the site to itself, but spokeswoman Claire Shaw who accompanied The Dominion Post on a visit to one of the farms on which the turbines will be erected, says it is “very confident that the wind is consistent. We will demonstrate that through the appropriate channel the (Environment Court) hearing process.” She said there was a connection between wind and rain but generators measured constancy in terms of weeks and months not minutes and hours. In those terms wind was more reliable than hydro.
Baseload capacity was also an issue, but a study headed by Professor Goran Strbac of Imperial College London had concluded the cost of integrating wind power into the New Zealand electricity system was many times lower than elsewhere because of New Zealand’s excellent “wind resource” and significant hydro. Shaw said Meridian recognised the project would have an impact on the landscape. “Any project has an impact but it’s not an option to choose to do nothing. Project Hayes is a significant project, but within the landscape we have chosen to site it in it is relatively insignificant in size.
“We don’t deny that it is a beautiful landscape but it is not of major significance in terms of its ecology and, from a visual perspective we feel, after consulting local people, that it’s not The Remarkables.”
Meridian stood by its estimate of the cost of wind generation, she said.
To get to John and Sue Elliot’s farm in the Paerau Valley you head south from Waipiata in the Maniototo plain and travel along a one-lane dirt road past the turnoff to the Old Dunstan Road, past the five pupil Paerau School till you come to the end of the road. Turn left and you’re there a brick farmhouse at the base of a 300 metre escarpment dotted with spiky matagouri bushes and twisted rock formations that jut from the side of the hill.
It’s a harsh, lonely environment, one of the most extreme for farming in New Zealand. In winter temperatures fall to minus 18 degrees. The farm is 55km from the nearest shop. The mail comes three days a week and the road is regularly rendered impassable by snow and ankle deep mud.
But it is an environment out of which three generations of the Elliot family have hewed a living. They are as hardy as the stock they occasionally have to dig out of the snow when sudden snow storms buffet the uplands. The 5200 hectare farm on which John grew up and plans to be buried is home to 14,000 merino whose super fine wool is sought after by Italian suit makers.
For the Elliots, Meridian’s plans to build a windfarm on the hills behind their home are a financial windfall. John, a weathered 45 year-old with an iron grip and a simple solution to dealing with the cold (“you just work harder and put a coat on”), declines to say how big a windfall but says Meridian has estimated the rent plus commission for each turbine will between $8000 and $15,000 a year. The maths is relatively easy to do given that it has been reported up to 68 turbines of the turbines could be sited on their land.
Sue, who grew up in the neighbouring Maniototo, says the extra income will give the family financial security that they do not get as sheep and beef farmers. “As farmers we have to take what is given to us. We are at the end of the chain. It guarantees we will be able to pay our mortgage at the end of the day.” But the Elliots are keen to emphasise the benefit to the community and the country of a project that has divided the eight families in the valley, three of whom will be unable to escape the sight of the turbines, but will receive none of the financial benefit.
Even if just one or two extra families settle in the valley it will make a difference to a community which in the past has had to offer free accommodation, free electricity, free firewood and free mutton to parents of school-age children from outside the area to keep the school open.
Sue says she feels no animosity towards those who oppose the project but there comes a time when common sense has to prevail. New Zealand needs the electricity Project Hayes will generate.
John says he will be more disappointed for the country than himself if the project is not approved by the Environment Court. “We would just go on with farming as usual.”
Mid 1970s: Otago University physics professor Keith Dawber begins compiling data about wind levels in Central Otago.
1996: Professor Dawber identifies the Project Hayes site as one warranting further study because, among other things, it is a “very extensive almost flat site but with higher winds at typical hub heights”.
September 2005: Meridian erects two 80m wind masts on the site.
July 2006: Meridian applies for resource consent to build Project Hayes.
April 2007: Commissioners appointed by the Central Otago District Council and the Otago Regional Council begin hearing submissions on the project.
October 2007: The commissioners approve the project saying the proposed site “is not outstanding when viewed in the Central Otago context”. Commission chairman John Matthews issues a dissenting opinion saying the site should have been classified as an outstanding natural landscape and that approval will create a dangerous precedent.
May 2008: the Environment Court begins hearing appeals against the resource consent.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The Environment Court, which has adjourned, will resume hearing in two weeks. If the court approves the project construction is expected to take between three to five years because work is only possible on the site for eight months a year. But further delays will occur if the court’s decision is appealed.
12 July 2008
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