This column was published in the Waikato Times on 31 March. Windfarms in the Waikato. Thereâ€™s a nice alliterative balance to the words, as well as the promise of economic and employment benefits. But donâ€™t count on them yet. Not only does a project have to undergo a long consent process and survive any apppeal, but once that hurdle has been surmounted the current economic factors obtaining have to be weighed and timing carefully considered. We inch towards the final commitment.
Four are under consideration in our region. Te Uku near Raglan, of medium size, has won consent for the farm, and now Wel Networks is seeking consent for a lines upgrade which will carry the electricity from where it is generated. Taharoa near Kawhia, another medium-size farm has consent, but is currently being appealed. Taumatatotara, a small farm sited south of Kawhia has consent but is on hold. And the giant among them, Hauauru ma raki near Port Waikato is soon to begin consent hearings before a Board of Enquiry, which is intended to provide a speedier process.
In the rest of NZ eighteen other farms are under consideration or part way through consent. Eight are operating or under construction, and those operating provide around 2.5% of the countryâ€™s electricity.
Consider other parts of the world. Denmark produces 20% of its electricity from wind, and is aiming at 50%. Spain produces 11%, Germany 7% and climbing. Wind power capacity globally has doubled over the past three years. India and China are now among the top five countries in terms of installed capacity.
What is the NZ potential? We have exceptional wind resources due to our prevailing westerly winds uninterrupted by other land forms. Indeed assessments show wind alone has the potential to create three times as much electricity as we need. Not that anyone is suggesting we try to harness wind to that extent, but the resource is large and NZ wind farms produce up to double the output of farms of a similar size in other countries. Moreover there is a synergy with hydro power, another renewable energy source with which NZ is unusually well endowed and which currently provides 55% of our electricity. When wind turbines are working less pressure is put on hydro power, preserving storage of water in the lakes. When wind is scarce the hydro lakes then have better capacity to take up the slack. Wind energy can be regarded as the equivalent of extra water flow into the hydro lakes. Mooted for NZ in future is an additional major role for wind in powering electric cars, using smart electricity meters to supply power when wind production is available but not used, such as overnight.
It looks a very promising contributor towards our decarbonised future, along with geothermal generation and perhaps tide and wave power. The 30% of NZ generation provided by fossil fuels has to shrink rapidly as we face up to climate change. Unfortunately progress will be affected by the slowness with which government is moving to put a price on carbon emissions. Electricity generation in NZ is designedly driven by market forces, and the renewed uncertainty surrounding the emissions trading scheme makes commercial decisions difficult. Mixed messages from the Minister of Energy in his lifting of the moratorium on fossil fuel-powered baseload generation donâ€™t help, nor does unrelenting pressure from vested interests to delay further the regulation of emissions. However the wind generation we already have is competitive and it seems clear that wind will provide reasonably priced power for the future once the politicians accept what that future has to be.
To some, windfarms are a blight on the landscape. Others of us find their aerodynamic design graceful, and less of an offence visually than many human structures. But whatever our perspective there is no escaping the imperative to move to new and different energy sources in which wind must surely figure strongly. Right now we need an effective emissions trading scheme, and consent processes which donâ€™t stretch out for unduly long times. Then we can count on seeing windfarms in the Waikato and wherever else in NZ they can effectively capture a little of the enormous power of the wind.