Nearly three years after plans were unveiled for a wind farm in Wellington’s Ohariu Valley, they remain on the drawing board and subject to a court battle. Proponents say the site is one of the best in the country, but critics have stepped up their resistance. Kiran Chug reports.
On the land where Kupe turned aside to dry the sails of his canoe, a farm of 31 wind turbines could one day power 35,000 homes across the Wellington region.
Ohariu Valley is home to farmers who have themselves driven forward plans for a wind farm there. Yet the proposal, now pushed by state-owned energy company Meridian, has divided those farmers and other residents opposed to Project Mill Creek.
While one group of landowners see only benefits in using the exposed expanse for renewable energy generation, another cites continuing complaints from the nearby Makara wind farm in opposition.
Farmers at Ohariu Valley first discussed the idea of a wind farm more than 10 years ago, before setting up Windcorp Ltd in 2001. The group wanted to ensure traditional farming would remain viable in the area, and saw a wind farm as being complementary. Meridian won a tender to develop a wind farm on the site and Project Mill Creek was born.
On Monday, an Environment Court hearing into plans for Mill Creek will resume. Although Meridian was granted permission for a 29-turbine farm last year, it now wants to build 31.
The company is up against the Ohariu Valley Preservation Society, and president Siobhan Lilley says the group’s case is straightforward. “We’re appealing for the removal of all the turbines in the proposal, on the grounds of noise, health and visual amenities.”
The group had originally appealed for the removal of 13 turbines but has increased its opposition and no longer supports any of the planned turbines.
Also opposed to Mill Creek is the Makara Guardians Society, a group formed through their joint opposition of the West Wind project. Mrs Lilley says it was the negative experiences of Makara residents once the farm began operating that made the society review its position.
Forming part of Meridian’s Environment Court evidence is an analysis of Ohariu Valley’s suitability for a wind farm, particularly given the Government’s target of 90 per cent of energy coming from renewable sources by 2025.
Engineer Paul Botha, who is responsible for the layout of Meridian’s wind farms, compares the site to the country’s other most wind-exposed locations – the southern part of Stewart Island, Mt Cook, the Marlborough Sounds, Cape Campbell, Tararua Forest Park, Castle Point and Cape Reinga.
Some of the sites have landscape values too high to accommodate wind farms, which is where Mill Creek becomes more suitable, with its proximity to existing transmission structures. Its constant wind directions also make it an “ideal site”.
Meridian has, since the development of West Wind, battled residents about the impact of turbines. While the company says it does not want to relitigate that lawfully consented and compliant project, it says Mill Creek will affect fewer people and to a lesser extent. The turbines will be the same as Makara’s: pitch-controlled and with the blades painted light grey to prevent light glinting off them.
In submissions to the Environment Court, Meridian’s wind development manager, Adam Muldoon, says Mill Creek’s benefits include its potential to provide a consistent wind resource, generating electricity for more than 90 per cent of the time. The 71.3MW will be enough to power more than 35,000 homes. The site’s exceptionally high mean annual wind speed also makes the cost of producing electricity there lower.
However, the society says Meridian has overstated the project’s benefits, particularly given that wind energy is still expensive. It also points out the wind farm won’t make a significant contribution to New Zealand’s energy needs.
When commissioners granted Meridian permission in February last year for a 29-turbine wind farm, they imposed a raft of conditions. They rejected two of the 111-metre tall turbines, each with a rotor diameter of 82.4m, as being too prominent for neighbours.
Meridian accepts now that the permitted farm will still have “unavoidable effects” on the coastal environment’s natural character. Its turbines will be visible from the Skyline Track and the Mt Kaukau trig, as well as the Makara Walkway and the southern headland of Smiths Bay. Yet it is arguing that the positive effects outweigh the disadvantages for some private properties.
Its opponents do not agree – particularly given the ongoing complaints about West Wind. After repeated complaints about low-frequency humming form the turbines, as well as audible noise in some wind conditions, Meridian’s engineers have worked to adapt turbine speed and sound. However, in its submissions to court, the company has called in a health psychology expert to argue that fear of exposure to wind farms may explain the locals’ suffering.
The society counters that those health effects are neither unreal nor imagined. West Wind has, they say, caused sleep deprivation, headaches and tinnitus.
Although the Environment Court hearing will continue this week, its final ruling could still be months away.
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