Palmerston North continues to be the trial ground for New Zealand’s wind energy industry.
Its representatives turned up in droves with thousands of pages of submissions at a hearing about proposed changes to the landscape and wind farm rules in the rural section of the District Plan.
NZ Windfarms, which operates Te Rere Hau, TrustPower, which runs its Tararua wind farms, Meridian Energy, whose wind farm is not even inside the city boundary, and Mighty River Power, which has yet to build its Turitea wind farm, clearly had big interests to promote.
It appeared to be a group manoeuvre, even though it was not a particularly well co-ordinated one, to break down some barriers to wind farm development. Or at least, make sure the process of getting resource consent for more turbines does not get any harder.
They all came with a National Policy Statement on their side, the Government’s plan to increase the amount of New Zealand’s energy that is generated from renewable sources.
Their message was clear, that local authorities should not just be aware of the policy, but that they should give effect to it.
One even suggested that it would be quite unfair for a single neighbour opposing a new wind farm development or extension to hold up a whole project that was in the best interests of the nation.
And then came the rather surprising request, put more as an instruction, really, about using noise contours to establish how close together turbines and houses should be.
NZ Windfarms announced the city council’s rule that people should not build houses closer than 1.5km from a wind turbine, because they were likely to not enjoy the noise, and would complain, was not scientific.
They proposed, instead, some noise contours that were supposed to show where noise levels, including noise from the turbines, would dip below 40 decibels and be perfectly acceptable.
Surprisingly, that would invite people to live closer to turbines than the council is proposing, and the council knows it gets complaints from even further afield.
The validity of those complaints is regularly challenged, but council lawyer John Maassen is adamant they are justified.
NZ Windfarms’ no-build line confused council representatives by not including Stage 4 of its development, which has consent but has not been built.
More surprising, was the disclosure that the company had not shared its proposals with the council before the hearing last week, and expected commissioners to pick them up and pop them in the District Plan. Just like that.
The late introduction of the proposals left the council’s acoustic consultant Nigel Lloyd disconcerted, in his own word, and urging the commissioners not to accept proposals there had not been time to assess.
Confusingly, Meridian started out not supporting the noise contours, and then it did, and then it produced its own version of where they lay, which was rather different to what NZ Windfarms wanted.
“The fact that there are two sets of noise contours provides me with no confidence that we can rely on either of them,” Lloyd said.
The industry boss, Wind Energy Association chief executive Eric Pyle, also breezed in, urging the council to use contours based on noise standards to establish set-back distances. Anything else was arbitrary and old hat, effectively.
Maassen urged the commissioners not to have a bar of it.
Not only had the request to use the noise contours arisen late, it had arrived without information about the assumptions and the modelling behind them.
He said it was unfair, because people had not had a chance to comment.
To introduce elements that had not been advised to the public before the hearings was quite probably outside the commissioners’ legal scope, in any case.
One might have thought the companies might have known that was the likely case.
It seems they were simply trying it on. But why?
Maassen saw it as an attempt to get rules into one District Plan, which would create a precedent, and would add weight to requests to use the contours in other plans around the country.
The manoeuvre would have come as no surprise to a couple of hardened campaigners, former mayor Jill White and former city councillor Bruce Wilson, who wanted the council to firmly shut the gate on any further wind farm development on the Tararua skyline.
Wilson said he did not believe the noise standards proposed to be included by the energy companies were fit to protect people’s health and wellbeing from the effects of low frequency turbine sounds.
Nor did it surprise resident Alison Mildon, who has spent the past ten years trying to protect the landscape from the intrusion of turbines, first as part of the Tararua Aokautere Guardians, and now, in her words, as the last woman standing.
Mildon was delighted that the council’s proposed rules added up to “something of a practical prohibition of further wind farm development”.
She comes from the school of thought that the area has more wind turbines than anywhere else in the country, and has already done its bit for renewable energy generation.
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