Selling a windfarm plan to a local community is always tough but Hauraki people are giving promoters of a major windfarm on the Kaimai Ranges a gruelling run for their money.
After being howled down at a Business-after-5 function in Paeroa late last year, the windfarm proposal’s community liaison advisor Clare Bayly was steeling herself for placards and more shouting at a Te Aroha Continuing Education-organised meeting thrown open to the public this week.
Though lively, the decibel-level stayed manageable among the 80 or so people who turned out, but there’s no doubt Auckland entrepreneur Glenn Starr faces a serious public challenge to his plan to build 24 turbines, most up to 207 metres high, over 1304 hectares on the north western top of the Kaimai Ranges, south of Paeroa.
Hauraki deputy mayor and Paeroa businessman Toby Adams was at the business function which turned ugly.
“It was well-advertised to the public. The people were business owners but not the usual and they had concerns. It was heated and loud. I was there as deputy mayor and I did apologise that it had got like that. But I did explain she is the front person, so she knew (it could get heated).
“I’ve had worse.”
Adams said while “no-one deserves that no matter what” the issue, people always feared change and the unknown.
“They believe it’s going to affect their outlook, their living quality, their house prices.”
Submissions have closed on the project, mooted more than 10 years ago.
Hauraki District Council received 220 – 157 against it and 57 in support.
Waikato Regional Council got 143 submissions, 96 against and 42 in support.
Independent commissions appointed by both councils are expected to hear the case by mid-year but Starr’s company may apply for direct referral to the Environment Court.
Getting the proposal across the regulatory line will cost around $180 million then Starr will seek equity partners to build, says Bayly, a public relations veteran who, while unsettled by the verbal attack in Paeroa, isn’t without sympathy for the opponents.
“I understand how they feel – when people feel powerless they get frustrated. My job is to provide them with objective information.”
In presentations she doesn’t pull punches.
“These are big turbines. They will be highly visible – you’re going to see them right out in the Hauraki Plains.”
For context, turbines at Meridian Energy’s windfarm at Te Uku near Raglan, are 130m high, currently the tallest in New Zealand. They are visible from Hamilton, 35km away and will be dwarfed by the Kaimai ones.
But the site also has the best wind energy generation potential that’s close to Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. The promoter argues the Government is targeting 100 per cent renewable electricity generation by 2035 and the windfarm would generate enough to power Napier.
The visual impact is apparently number one concern for local communities. Second is noise, which for houses 500m to 1km away will “sound like waves on a beach” and closer up, allows for normal conversation level, Bayly says.
Residents of Rotokohu Road, in a valley that would be wrapped in turbines, are understandably particularly sensitive about the proposal, she says.
Judging by the Te Aroha meeting, people are also worried about the effect on property prices, birds, and who’s going to “clean up the mess” if Starr’s company goes broke in the next 20 or 30 years and the neighbours are left with “a whole lot of rusting turbines”.
Also, its very possible, noted one attendee, that new technology will render the windfarm redundant in 20 years.
There were calls for a ring-fenced fund to be established to “clear up” the windfarm remains if the worst came to it, and one attendee called for rates relief for all households which “have to look at this eyesore”. The windfarm would get more support if the public owned it, said another.
Bayly assured that a community group would be developed to work with the company if the windfarm gets approval.
The windfarm would be monitored 24/7 from the United States, a revelation that provoked questions as to why New Zealand wasn’t getting the job. Bayly said the windfarm would have a manned substation but the US organisation was top of its field.
She said the public consultation journey had been an education, particularly while working with four iwi with connections to the site, one of which had raised the issue of the impact on mist on the Kaimai hilltops.
“They said the mist represents their ancestors. And there are burial sites up there, of course they want to know than none will be desecrated.”
Two turbines had been cut from the plan after talks with local hang-gliding and gliding groups and lights would come on the turbines when they sensed an aircraft at night.
Noting that the Te Uku windfarm had become a tourist drawcard, Bayly suggested a similar boost for Hauraki tourism and the growing popularity of its cycling rail trail.
Some at the Te Aroha meeting felt the Kaimai windfarm was a fait accompli.
Hauraki deputy mayor Adams said the feeling of powerlessness could be because people didn’t understand the resource consent process.
Even experts grappled with the Resource Management Act, he said.
“They’ve (Kaimai Windfarm) had to go through a massive, robust process to even be able to lodge a consent (application). Now they have to go through another.”
Kaimai Windfarm Ltd is 51 per cent owned by Ventus Energy, a company 100 per cent owned by Starr, and 49 per cent owned by Starr, according to the Companies Office register.
If the windfarm gets the green light from regulators, the first turbines would be delivered to the site late next year and the first power generated in 2021. The whole project could be completed by 2023.
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