Blowing hot and cold

A wind turbine. Photo supplied.
A wind turbine. Photo supplied.
An artist's impression of the proposed wind farm on Porteous Hill. Image by BRCT.
An artist's impression of the proposed wind farm on Porteous Hill. Image by BRCT.
Erecting a 30m wind-testing tower on Porteous Hill in 2013.
Erecting a 30m wind-testing tower on Porteous Hill in 2013.

A storm is brewing in Blueskin Bay, where the community is deeply divided over a wind farm project. Carla Green reports.

The flyers went up all over Blueskin Bay last November. Bright red text ran across the top, overlying a photo of a silhouetted three-bladed wind turbine: ''Coming soon to a hilltop near your home ...''

A proposal for a small wind farm on Porteous Hill had gone out for resource consent, the flyer announced, and there would be a meeting to discuss the proposal at Warrington Hall.

The flyers were not as innocuous as they might have seemed. They were, at once, an intimation of ongoing friction in the Blueskin Bay community, and a harbinger of conflict to come.

Warrington resident Simon Ryan helped make the flyers, his mobile number was printed at the bottom. And he lives on Porteous Hill, about half a kilometre from the proposed site of the wind farm.

In principle, Mr Ryan says, he supports renewable energy.

''We've been really working towards converting our place into an off-the-grid situation,'' he says.

But he is opposed to the Porteous Hill project. He is worried about how close the wind turbines would be to his home, and the noise they might make, but he also has doubts about whether the project is a good idea in the first place.

And he's not the only one.

Flying a kilometre above Blueskin Bay, the conflict over the wind farm can feel inscrutable.

''What's going on in Waitati?'' one outsider might ask another, both shrugging.

But down in the trenches, the gulf between pro- and anti-wind-farm residents appears impossibly large, their differences irreconcilable.

People who agree on almost everything - renewable energy, electric cars, community gardens, climate change - cannot agree on the wind farm.

Here are the facts.

The Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust (BRCT) has applied for resource consent for a $5-6 million, three-turbine wind farm on Porteous Hill.

According to BRCT estimates, the wind farm would produce enough electricity a year to power just under a third of the 3500 homes connected to the Palmerston-area grid.

The project has been in the works for at least six years; the seeds of the idea were sown at a community meeting after the 2006 Waitati floods.

Funding for the project would probably come from a mixture of local small funders and big investors, although that has yet to be determined.

The power produced by the turbines would be sold to an electricity retailer and then fed into the national grid.

BRCT initially wanted to provide the electricity directly to locals and give them a discount on their power bill, but realised that would not be feasible.

The technology was not quite there yet and it would probably cost millions of dollars on top of the initial project.

So the focus of the project pivoted, the proceeds from selling the electricity would go directly back into the community by way of the trust.

The trust would use the money to continue to expand on work it already does to make the community more sustainable, such as helping people insulate their homes, install solar panels and convert their cars to electricity.

And, proponents say, the wind-turbine cluster would be a symbol of Blueskin Bay's commitment to sustainability.

Over the years, the project has slowly picked up momentum, funding, and scientific research.

It has garnered quite a bit of media coverage looking eagerly into Blueskin Bay's future as the proud owners of New Zealand's first fully community-owned wind-turbine cluster.

But as momentum for the wind farm grew, so too did grumblings from local residents who are not on board with the project, or at least, are not anymore.

Some wind-farm opponents have been outspoken throughout the process. Many have not.

But when the project finally went out for resource consent last November, a wave broke over Blueskin Bay.

Realising the project might actually come to fruition, doubters have come out of the woodwork.

They may not have been talking before, but they are now.

Rosemary Penwarden and Derek Onley have gone from supporting the project to submitting against it. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Rosemary Penwarden and Derek Onley have gone from supporting the project to submitting against it. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Rosemary Penwarden and Derek Onley live on a windy road in Waitati.  

A black-and-white sign sits along their back deck: ''No deep sea drilling''.

The deck looks out across Blueskin Bay - they can see Porteous Hill from their garden.

Ms Penwarden has lived in Waitati for 28 years.

As an activist with Oil Free Otago she has spoken to the Dunedin City Council about climate change and helped organise actions against deep-sea oil drilling.

The north-facing roof of her home with Mr Onley is lined with solar panels.

Reducing emissions to address climate change is her number one priority, she says.

Ms Penwarden and Mr Onley both oppose the Blueskin Bay wind-farm project.

They were two of the 60-plus people who submitted against the project as part of the resource consent process.

But in the beginning, Ms Penwarden was all for the project.

Both she and Mr Onley were at the 2006 meeting, and subsequent meetings, too.

''It was pretty cool, actually. I was really into it.''

Soon afterwards, though, she started to have doubts.

And eventually, she lost faith in the project entirely.

Ms Penwarden was reluctant to be interviewed at first.

She works on projects with people who support the wind farm and did not want to make things awkward.

And, she says, she feels weird, as an environmental activist, opposing a renewable energy project.

''Because, on the surface, it looks like a great solution,'' she says.

''And if we can't sort this out in Waitati, then sometimes I wake up quite depressed, that, if we can't get it right here, what hope is there?''

A big part of the reason Ms Penwarden lost faith had to do with BRCT's community engagement, or lack thereof, she says.

BRCT had held a lot of consultation meetings over many years, Ms Penwarden concedes.

That's true.

But the fact that so many of the people who live within 1.5km of the proposed site oppose the project, six out of 10 according to submissions on the resource consent, should be a red flag, she says.

''To me, the people closest to this wind-farm proposal should have the most say. And it appears they didn't get that, and they're not happy about that.''

And then, there is the question of putting a wind farm on Porteous Hill in the first place. Wind-farm sites are classed by how windy they are.

Porteous Hill is a ''class II'' site, one tier down from the windiest sites.

Once BRCT realised the energy from the wind turbines was going to go into the national grid and would not lower residents' power bills, Ms Penwarden says, the reason to put the wind farm on a class II site evaporated.

It is not just silly to erect a wind farm as a symbol of sustainability, it is irresponsible, she says.

If the point is to make money for the trust through renewable energy, then put the wind farm somewhere windy.

Sentimentality and symbolism should have nothing to do with it, she says.

Plus, Ms Penwarden says, she has yet to be convinced the project will actually help to move New Zealand away from fossil fuels.

''In the South Island, especially ... most of [our electricity], by far, is renewable already,'' she says.

''Say we lived in southern England, or Australia, anywhere where putting up wind turbines is going to close down a coal-fired power station. I would be all for it. I like wind farms, I like the look of turbines. I'm not against that.''

But Blueskin Bay is not Australia or southern England, she says.

Mr Onley is sceptical about many of the same things as Ms Penwarden.

And, as a trained ornithologist, he also has concerns about BRCT's ecological assessment of Porteous Hill.

He does not think the trust has enough information about what birds are on Porteous Hill, and how they might be affected by the wind turbines.

Mr Onley, who has done similar work for other wind-farm projects, says he offered to do the assessment himself - for a fee - but never heard back.

BRCT manager Scott Willis insists it is Mr Onley who refused to provide a quote.

Regardless, Mr Onley says, the current ecological report is insufficient.

Something needs to be done.

''They need to go back and do it properly,'' he says.

P. J. Clarke is another who has doubts.

He lives just down the road from Ms Penwarden and Mr Onley in Waitati, and was on the trust from 2011-2012.

He has a master's degree in environmental science from the University of Otago and has previously worked as a Ministry of Fisheries forensic scientist.

He, too, was unimpressed with the ecological reports.

''I described [the ecological analysis] as once over lightly, and it's barely that. It's trivial,'' he says.

''It's just not done in the depths you'd expect.

''And if the wind analysis is of a similar quality to the ecological analysis ... you should be deeply sceptical of it.''

He is not the only former trustee who has since come out against the project.

Waikouaiti Coast Community Board member Geraldine Tait was on the trust in 2010 and helped Mr Ryan organise the anti-wind-farm meeting last November.

Jenny McDonald also opposes the project.

She was on the trust for three years, from 2011-2014.

And like Ms Penwarden, Mr Onley, and Mr Clarke, Dr McDonald says she approves of renewable energy projects in principle and enjoyed her time on the trust.

But, eventually, her growing doubts about the viability of the project drove her to leave.

Throughout her time as a trustee, she says, she was concerned about two main things: the wind data, and the consultation.

Masts had gone up to measure wind speeds at the top of the hill, but the analysis has not been sufficient, she says.

''My perception ... was that the drive to get windmills specifically on Porteous Hill seemed, to me, to be stronger than the evidence we had to support that.''

And Dr McDonald, like Ms Penwarden, was also concerned about the consultation process.

''BRCT was very good at putting information out there, promoting the project, I think what it was less good at was actually listening to - and really engaging in a meaningful way - with people in the community.''

During her time on the trust, Dr McDonald says, she raised both issues numerous times.

But she never felt they were adequately addressed.

So when the time came, Dr McDonald - like Mr Clarke - decided to submit against the wind farm, a project she had been involved in for three years.

The evidence is just not there, she says.

At least, not as far as she can tell.

BRCT manager and Blueskin Energy Ltd project manager Scott Willis in his office at Waitati School. Photo by Linda Robertson.
BRCT manager and Blueskin Energy Ltd project manager Scott Willis in his office at Waitati School. Photo by Linda Robertson.

• It is a stiflingly hot day when Scott Willis and I sit down in BRCT's cramped offices on the campus of Waitati School.

Mr Willis is a former BRCT trustee and now works as the trust's manager. People sometimes refer to the Blueskin Bay wind-farm project as ''Scott's wind farm''.

But Mr Willis shoots that down quickly.

It is not his project, he says.

He is just the project manager of the trust's company, Blueskin Energy Ltd.

He shifts his weight forward and back in his kneeling chair as he listens and reacts to what critics of the project have said.

Later he will write an email describing our interview as gruelling: ''You appeared to want to find some scandal''.

Mr Willis, to his credit, has a response to every criticism levelled against the wind farm project.

Porteous Hill is a class II site for a wind farm, that is true, he says.

And so what?

''Yes, it's not a fantastic wind resource. We agree with that,'' he says.

''It's an adequate wind resource. The fact is that it will reduce emissions locally ... Porteous Hill has wind. And it's close to transmission. It's close to the community. It's visible. It has high community acceptability through all of our community engagement.''

It is worthwhile to produce more renewable energy in the South Island, Mr Willis argues, because it helps to offset consumption of fossil fuel energy in the north.

He cites an analysis conducted by former trustee and energy expert Emeritus Profressor Gerry Carrington that found the wind turbines would offset greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of 966 tonnes a year.

The ecological and other reports commissioned for the resource consent are sound, Mr Willis says, and the financial viability of the project is sound, too.

Plus, just to allay people's fears, he says, more reports have been commissioned in response to concerns outlined in submissions opposing the project.

The reports are not yet public.

They will be presented at the resource consent hearing, now expected to be some time in May.

Asked why people oppose the project, Mr Willis points to the many Blueskin Bay residents who support it, about 64 of whom submitted in favour of it during the consultation process.

Maybe some people against the project just feel more comfortable in an oppositional role, he suggests.

Or maybe, he says, they are misinformed, possibly because of an anonymous, anti-wind-farm Facebook page with some misinformation about the wind farm that went up last year.

''Most people quite possibly have had a certain amount of anxiety raised by the anonymous information that's inaccurate,'' he says.

On almost every one of those counts, wind-farm proponents unanimously agree with Mr Willis, just as wind farm opponents tend to agree about flaws in the project.

On some points, the divergence between pro- and anti-wind-farm narratives is utterly confounding, explicable only by the malleability of human perception and memory.

Exhibit A: the consultation process.

When asked to respond to criticism of BRCT's community consultation throughout the process, trust chairman Craig Marshall categorically rejected it.

''They were at different meetings from the ones I attended, then,'' he says.

''Because we have always asked for open debate.''

People definitely have differing points of view, especially in Blueskin Bay, he says. That is normal. But it does not mean true consultation did not happen, he says.

''I would be very surprised, in fact, I'd be very concerned if I went to any kind of meeting and there was unanimity about everything.''

And then there is BRCT patron and former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Ms Fitzsimons says she is not necessarily surprised by the opposition to the project - although she was surprised to hear people criticising the consultation process - the consultation had impressed her with how thorough it was, she says.

''It seems to be there have been so many consultation meetings, so many workshops.''

But above all, she says, she trusts the resource consent process.

''It can be really gutting if you spent your life putting together a proposal that you believe is in the interests of the community, and it gets turned down because of opposition. But the fact is that under the Resource Management Act, everybody's views need to be heard,'' she says.

''I'm not saying, no matter what the evidence, this project has got to be good. I'm saying, if people are against it, let's hear their reasons, and let's see the evidence for those reasons.''

Porteous Rd meanders up the hill, passing sheep and farmhouses and criss-crossing fences as it goes. It ends not far from the top of Porteous Hill.

The end of the road looks out over Blueskin Bay unfolding in the distance, townships fading into sandy beaches fading into the impossibly blue sea. The scene is perfectly picturesque.

After weeks of reporting on what might or might not happen on the top of Porteous Hill, I decided to go up there.

I climbed through the rock-strewn paddock and prickly plants to the top of the mound closest to the road. I sat on a pile of rocks at the top. It was almost perfectly still, and silent.

Then, the wind picked up. Faintly, at first, then more insistently.

I took one last look at the view.

Then I stood up, put my notebook away, and walked back down the hill, tripping slightly as I made my way across the unkempt field in the cold, blowing wind.

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