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Was Meridian Energy's decision late last week to shelve its $2 billion Project Hayes wind farm in Central Otago a lost opportunity for establishing renewable energy in this country on a grand scale - or simply a "prudent commercial decision" by the power company giant?
Malcolm Macpherson, whose Central Otago District Council granted consent for the project originally, and the Save Central environmental lobby group, as represented by Grahame Sydney, BrianTurner, Graye Shattky and Anton Oliver, were invited by the Otago Daily Times to provide opinions from both sides of a debate that divided communities.
New Zealand could be a renewable energy nation.
Think what that could mean.
While the rest of the world deals with the costs and social dislocations of the "end of the age of petroleum", we could fuel our entire vehicle fleet, heat and cool our houses, and produce increasingly valuable milk and meat and fruit and wine entirely from our own renewable resources. No other nation on earth can do that.
How could this be?
Because we have the capacity to produce enough electricity from hydro, geothermal and wind generation (and, one day, wave, tide and solar) to do without fossil oil and gas - in perpetuity. And because there aren't many of us.
But not unless we begin to rule things in, instead of ruling them out.
If Meridian's experience with the Waitaki's Project Aqua signalled the end of "Big Hydro" (at the time, that seemed to be the consensus), and its experience with Project Hayes similarly signals the end of "Big Wind" (and even it seems to be saying so), then where are the renewable energy projects that enable the future we deserve going to come from?
Yes, small-scale wind generation can be commercially successful (declaration - I'm a member of Central Lakes Trust, owner of Pioneer Generation, which recently commissioned the Mount Stewart wind farm). There will, one day, be new hydro projects on the Clutha.
And other small-scale projects around New Zealand will make a positive difference. But a sustainable future, a low-carbon future, a future which ensures our long-term success as a small trading nation on the edge of the world demands more than back-yard solutions and hobby-scale projects.
Which is why the failure of Project Hayes is more than just the quixotic victory of a small elite against the machine of the state. It's also a failure of nerve, and a lost opportunity that would have been as significant as the hydro projects which transformed Otago and which continue to make such an important contribution to our national wellbeing.
The failure of Project Hayes raises some questions that all New Zealanders should think about: Who should decide our future - small, high-profile elites (in the case of Project Hayes a painter, a poet, an All Black and a retired soldier), or those of us who are ambitious for a successful and enduring New Zealand?
Can we trust local authority resource consent processes?
As a 22-year practitioner, you'd expect me to believe in local democracy, and I do. But, incredibly, Project Hayes opponent Anton Oliver said on National Radio in 2010, "I used to think that local decisions made by local people under the RMA was a good thing. I no longer think that, having witnessed it personally at Hayes."
He went on to say, "The nepotism and the internecine conflicts in local levels get in the way of logical sound decision-making ... and I think if we look at Hayes, umm Meridian had to donate about six to seven million, part of a sort of development fund, that goes to the community, well, I'm fairly sure that impaired objective decision-making ..."
What's Anton saying?
That the CODC's hearing panel, with an independent lawyer as chairman, an independent member, and three very experienced councillors, was swayed by "nepotism and internecine conflicts"?
And more, that the panel's decision was corrupted by the possibility of a development contribution?
Those are extraordinary statements. If even remotely true, they would be scandalous. Of course they are not, as anyone with local government experience will attest.
I still believe that the CODC's panel made the right decision when it approved Meridian's consent application. Project Hayes would have been good for Otago and good for New Zealand. Long after the scheme's opponents are dead and buried, this country will suffer the consequences of their actions.
What will it take for New Zealand to appreciate our unique opportunity to be the world's only "renewables" nation?
A few brown-outs! Sooner or later we'll exceed our generating capacity, and rationing of electricity will see many of us emptying our deep freezes and reading our newspapers by candlelight. About then, the silent majority will become pretty vocal.
Would a smaller Project Hayes application have succeeded? Almost certainly - others have since.
Meridian was too ambitious. A smaller (but still world-scale) proposal would almost certainly have survived the Environment Court, and the turbines would be turning today.
And finally, how special is the Lammermoor?
An Environment Court judge has said too special to be the site of some temporary, easily removed turbines, with almost no environmental effects beyond the visual, and no lasting impact. So what about the last of the wild Clutha, or Birch Island, or the Nevis?
We're going to have to fuel our future from somewhere. I'd rather have wind turbines than another Clyde dam.
- Malcolm Macpherson