Getting windy in Waikato

WindturbineThis column was published in the Waikato Times on 31 March. Windfarms in the Waikato. There’s a nice alliterative balance to the words, as well as the promise of economic and employment benefits. But don’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 country’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 don’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 don’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.

15 thoughts on “Getting windy in Waikato”

  1. Right now we need an effective emissions trading scheme, and consent processes which don’t stretch out for unduly long times.

    National is faffing about with the first, and seemingly acting on the second. Do you have an opinion on which would make the most difference to the uptake of wind and/or renewables in NZ?

    I love the possibility of using hydro as a ‘battery’, but I wonder if it really is that simple…

    (that would be uneducated wondering)

  2. Stephen, I have little doubt that an effective emissions trading scheme is the more important factor in the encouragement of renewable energy. The consent process has been dauntingly long, sometimes to the point of altering the economic viability of a project, but nevertheless consents mostly have been granted and projects have been able to get under way. But the fact that coal and gas generation is often cheaper in a market which has been allowed to treat environmental damage as an externality seems to be the major hindrance to rapid development of renewable energy. In his Herald piece this morning, which Carol has drawn attention to, Fraser Clark points out that wind farms in New Zealand receive no subsidies. He might equally well have pointed out that coal and gas plants are subsidised in effect – a subsidy which will be paid by our grandchildren in terms of the diminished world we are preparing for them. I can see wind energy racing ahead once fossil fuels are required to operate in a more responsible market environment. Whether enough of our politicians can get their heads around these very obvious facts remains to be seen. Shortening consent processes was easy. Putting a price on carbon is the real test. I hope they measure up.

  3. Anyone flying into or out of Wellington should be able to get a good view of the Makara windfarm, well underway. As of last weekend, I counted 11 turbines up and running, several more up but not yet running and several more on site waiting to be built. To my eye it looks GREAT.

  4. I flew into and out of Wellington last week but it was cloudy, bother!

    On a related note (both to wind farms and “bother”), Gareth will have to wait a little longer to get a view of wind turbines from his place as our Mt Cass Wind Farm has had its resource consent declined.

    The decision is on Hurunui district council’s website – if anyone is keen enough to wade through it.

    Andrew Hurley

  5. Andrew I haven’t waded through all of the decision (I did with the Te Uku decision and hence have some idea of the time and concentration required) but I have read enough to see that a careful case was made for the project and to sense the disappointment you are no doubt feeling. In what I did read I was struck by the fact that site selection is so vital in terms of the economics, and wondered whether less favourable sites might prove economically viable once wind power doesn’t have to labour under the disadvantage of competing with fossil fuel power which is not paying its environmental dues.

    There is an irony in the rejoicing of conservationists and I hope they will be subdued in hailing this as a victory. I’m in no position to judge the ecological factors which have weighed in the hearing, or to question the decision, but I’m sure that global warming is a far greater ecological threat than wind farms, and that is the perspective against which these difficult considerations must be measured.

  6. Hi Bryan…it seems you have read a fair chunk of the decision which is an act above and beyond etc.. and what’s more read it with an open mind. Thankyou for your comments.

    I am disappointed because I really believe we could have made the site work for the benefit of the ecology as well as for the wind. The conservationist opposition is pretty staunch – probably because conservation is a long hard battle and many of them have been fighting that battle for years.

    There appears to be an expectation that wind farms can be built anywhere and be equally effective, (or perhaps more that the wind is the same everywhere) but this isn’t the case. They are actually very difficult to get across the line financially and the quality of the wind is the only driver of energy output and hence income. As you infer a price on carbon would make a difference (but we have already factored some of that into our thinking).

    Three wind farms have been knocked back recently (Cass and Waitahora in the last couple of days and Te Waka at Environment Court, a few weeks ago) won’t be long before someone has to commission a gas or coal plant to take up the slack!

  7. Andrew, perish the thought of further coal or gas plants, though unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the view of the current Minister of Energy. As I see it we must pay whatever it costs for renewable energy (though most of what I read suggests it won’t be astronomical). And if we say no to the most favourable sites for wind farms then we must recognise that means paying more for energy from places where the wind isn’t as reliable.

    The government already expresses dismay at rising energy prices. Yet they must face rising prices if they put a price on carbon, and it is hard to see that they can delay that for much longer. I found the intricacies of competitive pricing difficult to follow when I was preparing to write my column, but it seemed that fossil fuel generation is still a benchmark in the skewed market system we are operating under. Which is crazy not only environmentally but also because we’ll have to pay for it as a country anyway when we meet our international obligations under Kyoto and its successor.

  8. Andrew, I had a quick read of the decision too and can only agree wholeheartedly with Bryan’s comments – particularly the irony of this being seen as as a victory for ‘the environment’.

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