NZ on wrong track with energy strategy

Grahame Sydney
Grahame Sydney
On World Environment Day, Grahame Sydney makes a plea for a new approach to energy generation.

That's the trouble with Mother Nature: she can be quite contrary when it suits, and She sure doesn't seem eager to please the energy industry right now.

We're learning how little control we have over two of our renewables, water and wind: security of supply is never certain.

A season of reduced rainfall in the critical catchments has left hydro lakesat their lowest levels since the power crisis of 1992, and perilously close to minimum storage, below which no hydro generation is allowed.

Unsurprisingly, it has also been a calm few months across the country - and especially so in Central Otago - so the contribution of the nation's eight existing wind farms has been poor.

If ever a graphic illustration of the foolishness of dependence on the preferred renewables, hydro and wind power, was needed, it is now.

Energy Minister David Parker remains blithely confident no crisis is imminent, despite all evidence against that optimism: rainfall from here on is likely to fall as snow and be of little value to hydro lakes until spring thaw.

Winter is consistently calmer than other quarters, and even if there was substantial penetration of wind energy into the national grid, those wind estates would be infrequent generators.

Away from sea breezes, winter frequently turns breathless.

New Zealand has 321.8MW of installed (i.e. maximum output) capacity wind generation at present.

At the time of writing, the country is using 5031MW approx (anyone can access these figures on - updated every few minutes. Look under zone loadings) - not unusual for this time of year.

Energy Link Ltd offers data which suggests that in the week ending May 25, wind contributed 0.6% of the total energy consumed (and wind has priority over all other generation, including hydro in the national grid, thanks to Government insistence).

Taken as a guide, 0.6% of 5031MW is 30MW or thereabouts.

On the doorstep of official winter, then, the wind farms of New Zealand were generating only 30MW of their capacity 321.8MW, or 10.7% of what they persistently claim they can do.

The New Zealand Wind Energy Association's own website still trumpets the misleading 145,000 homes that can be powered by wind energy.

Can be? Only when all wind farms are operating at capacity, with perfect wind speed conditions, every day of the week, every hour of the day. Better get the candles out, 145,000 homeowners! Or have something more reliable.

Security and wind energy are irritable bedfellows. The goal to achieve 20% penetration of the grid by wind energy will only result in greater dependence on the necessary back-up generation wind always requires.

If Nature refuses to comply - in this case blow steadily - when the market demands it, wind generation, like hydro generation in a dry year, will be treacherous and unreliable, and of scant value to consumers.

Large-scale schemes only multiply the problem. If we must have a wind component, let it be in already modified or semi-industrialised landscapes - in the "grey belts", not the green; on community-need scale and close to demand.

But be prepared for high costs: capital costs are huge. Project Hayes is likely to cost well over $2 billion.

Then, no wind equals no income for wind generators, and since the cost of energy from wind is much higher at low wind speeds than it is at higher speeds, if there is a little output from wind generators thanks to mild breezes, the higher costs of that generation (remembering the priority afforded wind in the grid) will be reflected in the spot prices paid by distributors.

Consumers will pay even more. The Save Central support group ( has been established to muster financial support for the Environment Court appeals against Meridian's monster Project Hayes, but also beyond that immediate task to stir public interest and informed debate about the nation's woefully ad hoc energy strategy.

Save Central holds that the destructive industrialisation of the country's magnificent, unspoiled landscapes - like the Lammermoors - is inappropriate, unnecessary, and unacceptable.

We should not be encouraging the promotion of renewable energy at the cost of things which cannot be renewed or replaced, like those natural, emblematic landscapes so many people love.

There are many other alternatives to this Think Big degradation of our treasured landscapes: the list of potential energy sources is long, and New Zealand should be assiduously encouraging them all.

Our best energy security lies not with massive schemes which depend on undependable Nature, but with a solid foundation of proven base-load generation, and an additional structure of other sources.

The chief executive of Transpower, responsible (as generating companies are not) for guaranteeing supply to consumers, is on record as preferring the geothermal resources of the North Island - a base-load, 24-hour predictable resource, very natural to this country, and conveniently close to the centres of growth up North.

Just this week, encouragingly, the Government has announced development support for Crest Energy's tidal energy scheme at Kaipara Harbour, capable of 200MW of secure output in its final form. The powerful tidal flows through Cook Strait are waiting for a similar initiative.

Combined-cycle plants (gas and geothermal) should have a bright future within our energy mix, and even clean coal thermal - a far cry from the old technologies which had less regard for carbon emissions - should not be written out, given our huge coal reserves.

New Zealand quietly exports two million tonnes of coal to China, India and Japan, where it is devoured with apparent disregard for any Kyoto-based anxieties for carbon emissions, while we at home are constantly lectured about the evils of coal consumption. The word "hypocrisy" comes to mind.

The increased incentive for domestic users to install solar water heating is another welcome sign that energy conservation by homeowners can make a difference, but it must go much further than that: a recent government-backed report in Britain says that with changed policies to encourage microgeneration, the number of homes producing their own clean energy could multiply to one million within 12 years, save enough CO2 emissions by 2030 as taking all trucks and buses off British roads, and produce enough power to replace five nuclear stations.

The Conservative Party in opposition in the United Kingdom has policies aimed at a "decentralised energy revolution", enabling factories, schools, hospitals and households to generate their own electricity through independent solar and micro wind.

It might not suit the major generators, but a like policy in New Zealand would be something to be proud of.

On a micro, domestic scale, solar and wind energy can be stored in batteries, something the industrial Think Big scale cannot do.

Fifteen European countries have "feed-in tariffs" which pay householders for feeding the electricity they produce from microgeneration (e.g. photovoltaic cells) into the national grid.

Consequently, 130,000 German homes have solar photovoltaic cells, encouraged by generous government installation grants.

It would not be difficult here, but where is the political will? This is what the Greens ought to champion, if the Government will not.

Within two decades, other technologies under development now will be market-viable: utility solar towers (being developed in the United States), pelamis ocean swell technology, and ceto wave power, to name only three.

All, or any one, may come through as highly efficient, and make the sacrifice of the Lammermoors and other valued landscapes even more regrettable.

Nuclear is the unmentionable word. So entrenched is the antinuclear philosophy that to mention the common sense of considering it brings almost evangelical disdain from some quarters.

My own experience is different. Private conversations reveal a surprising degree of support for the nuclear option, or at least taking a close look at it.

There are issues related, like the dwindling supply of uranium, and the residual material disposal worry - an unenviable legacy for future generations.

But in its favour, nuclear power is carbon emissions-free, comparatively cheap and base-load dependable, and it would mean that the extraordinary national treasure of our outstanding landscapes are preserved from the devastating assaults of further wind farms and hydro inundations.

There is temptation for some in the thought that a small nuclear station in the vicinity of Auckland would cater for projected growth in that region for decades to come and halt the continued, unjustified sacrifice of some the South's most beautiful places.

But this country is probably too small for such a station. It would be difficult to justify, and politically the antinuclear mindset will take years to displace.

All energy schemes have negative impacts, and opinions will always vary over which are least damaging, which are most preferable.

It's a question of how you want this country to look, and how you want it to behave. If the nation wants endless supplies of energy to be provided and its undisciplined energy consumption to grow exponentially regardless of the cost to both consumer and landscapes, then we carry on the present path.

But I suggest there are other, better ways: with the right incentives, New Zealand could lead the world in microgeneration and self-sufficiency; we could champion renewable schemes which do not depend on fickle Nature, but utilise dependable base-load resources; we could retain the unspoiled landscapes as we know and admire them for generations ahead; we could learn lessons from the ugly mistakes of other countries, not repeat them; and we should reclaim the energy industry as an essential service, like health and education, and dissolve the present subdivided, competitive format which has failed so spectacularly, to the detriment of all consumers.

New Zealand could and should be thinking carefully about the consequences of decisions made too hastily, taking us on yet another doomed Think Big strategy which fails to live up to the many promises made to usher it in.

Too late we learn the truth.

Grahame Sydney is a Central Otago artist and a founding member of the Save Central support group.


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