As climate breakdown and the need to get off fossil fuels intensify, so too is the push for renewable energies.
A recent story on how Taranaki’s wind could solve the country’s energy crisis painted an enticing future. Yet caution is needed.
Firstly, there’s a difference between solving the country’s energy crisis and climate change.
Building hundreds of offshore wind turbines may address some of Aotearoa’s energy problems, but it won’t necessarily reduce total emissions to a meaningful level or in a timely manner.
The Emission Reduction Plan allows coal boilers to operate till 2037. It doesn’t stop oil and gas exploration or petrol car imports.
There is no push to reduce dairy herd size substantially. It is quite likely that despite an increase in renewable energy, emissions will continue to rise and climate change impacts worsen.
We can’t assume that by doing more “good”, the bad stuff will go away.
Secondly, the climate emergency necessitates fast effective action in 8-10 years.
At the same time, we have to invest in adaptation for the drastic changes from baked-in global warming and tipping points.
It’ll take over a decade to get the approvals and design of the wind farm ready, and much longer still to have it operational. How realistic is the $5 billion costing? And the predicted earnings from exporting hydrogen?
Sitting at the end of the line, NZ will also have to compete with resource-rich Australia. Where are the cost-benefit analyses and alternatives for consideration?
What would stop the investment, mainly under NZ Super, from being squandered into the pockets of international corporations’ shareholders? Remember NZ Super fund is New Zealanders’ retirement security.
Thirdly, being far offshore doesn’t mean that the turbines will have little environmental impact. Aotearoa is the global seabird capital and home to over half of the world’s marine mammals.
The South Taranaki Bight is a hot spot, hosting six endangered species of marine mammals, one vulnerable and 18 others with too little data to even assess.
We also have a genetically distinct Blue whale population.
The proposed wind farm borders the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary designated to protect our critically endangered Māui dolphin and other marine mammals.
International literature reveals numerous environmental impacts of offshore wind farms, from construction to operation and decommissioning.
Underwater noise from pile-driving during construction is a problem. It can damage the acoustic systems of marine mammals, impair their ability to communicate, orientate and find food and mates, reduce habitat availability and cause population decline.
Kororā, the Little penguin that travels from Marlborough Sounds to Taranaki Bight to feed, may also be affected.
During operation, the electromagnetic fields from submarine power cables can affect some whales, dolphins and sharks.
For Albatross and other seabirds, there are real risks of collision fatalities and flight avoidance responses which displace them from ideal feeding locations and migration paths. All these impacts need to be thoroughly assessed.
My fourth point concerns hidden costs and the limits to growth. Indeed South Taranaki’s legendary wind is an unlimited resource.
But capturing a significant portion of it requires unprecedented amounts of energy and material resources, not just money and engineering expertise.
In a letter to the government, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment requested a whole-energy-system analysis before committing significant renewable energy to hydrogen production and export.
The shocking reality is that currently no renewable technologies can be deployed without fossil fuels and nearly all require mineral mining.
Each offshore turbine is made up of hundreds of tons of steel, concrete, fibreglass, copper and rare earth metals.
Producing steel and concrete are extremely carbon intensive. Mining gobbles up fossil fuels. It destroys natural ecosystems which otherwise provide us with climate stabilisation and other valuable ecological services.
Mining overseas often violates indigenous sovereignty, labour rights and safety requirements. Although wind turbines may last for over 20 years, they are often re-powered with new components or decommissioned before that.
Vastly overbuilding our renewable energy generation capacity to fuel growth and to have excess for hydrogen export doesn’t seem prudent.
Increasingly, engineers warn that as much as we want to get rid of our energy system that is reliant on calorically dense fossil fuels, it is impossible to replace it entirely with renewables and expect the same level of energy and economic outputs.
Some economists and scientists say degrowth is inevitable, so it is far better to plan and manage it than to ignore it.
The goal is to vastly reduce economic activities to a steady state or an ‘economy of enough’ as the late Jeanette Fitzsimons envisioned.
Invest in a caring economy that fosters health and wellbeing, regenerates the marvels of nature and avoids frivolous consumption.
Divest from centralised energy, food and other systems to support local, Māori and community initiatives for public empowerment and resilience.
Embrace the sharing economy where we share our skills, time and resources rather than compete for money.
Doughnut economics proponent Kate Raworth sees a sweet spot where societies thrive within natural limits while ensuring everyone’s basic needs are ensured.
Who knows, if we get it right, we’d work less, spend more time with families and have more fun!
Catherine Cheung is an ecologist and researcher for Climate Justice Taranaki.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding