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New Zealand

Government shows signs of action -- Still uphill in New Zealand

New Zealand's government might be intending to get 90% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025, but action to help the country's wind farm developers in their uphill struggle against an archaic land use consents process is still missing. Projects of anything less than 30 MW are simply not worth the effort. The system is "hugely stacked against us," says one prospective small scale project developer. Only major investors and large state-owned enterprises having the financial muscle and staying power to work through the years-long consenting and appeals timeframe.

Three lots of turbines went on line in 2007 to bring New Zealand's operating wind capacity to 322 MW. In the Manawatu region, Trustpower completed Tararua III using 31 Vestas 3 MW turbines and the first five of 97 locally made Windflow 500 kW machines destined to make up the Te Rere Hau wind farm went into operation. In Southland, Meridian put up 58 MW of Vestas 2 MW turbines for its White Hills project.

The New Zealand Wind Energy Association's Fraser Clark believes there are reasons to be "cautiously optimistic," despite the challenges. Among these, legislation for carbon emissions trading is working its way through parliament, an election year is providing a frisson of uncertainty, and grid integration, connections and forecasting output remain technical challenges. But these can all be dealt with, says Clark, and he sees positive signs in the support for renewables development. "All the big guys are now looking at wind," Clark says.

A number of smaller proposals are effectively marking time, however, while their developers wait to see what the market does. The difficulties have been exacerbated by the tight supply in turbines, with New Zealand developers suffering because of their small orders, long distance from major manufacturers and the need to customise standard designs to cope with the country's strong blustery conditions.

The proposed Te Uku wind farm cited a two-year waiting list for delivery during its resource consent hearing in November and used this to justify requesting an additional ten years for its consent period. The uncertainty of supply has imposed other constraints, with companies unable to state what turbine model their development will use. This has been criticised by opponents who want such details set down in the consents. Mainpower is considering turbines ranging from 500 kW to 3 MW for its Mt Cass wind farm, but has yet to decide what configuration it is likely to use despite hoping to be generating by the end of next year.

Minister intervenes

A potential way through the consents barrier was revealed late last year when environment minister Trevor Mallard intervened in Unison's efforts to get its Hawkes' Bay wind farm permitted. The consents process involves developers working their way through a million dollars or more, negotiating resource consent applications, appeals, hearings, Environment Court decisions, further appeals and High Court decisions. Mallard called in the Hawkes' Bay project, deeming it to be of national significance, taking the local authorities out of the picture. His action could fast-track the process.

"The proposal is relevant to New Zealand's international obligations to the global environment in terms of the Kyoto Protocol including the proposal's contribution towards the achievement of the target of 90% of electricity generation to be from renewable energy sources by 2025 as set out in the New Zealand Energy Strategy to 2050," says Mallard, justifying his intervention.

Energy companies have been watching the process with interest. Government intervention on wind farm consents would reduce undue delays and bypass the local decision-making that can kill projects. Allco's Motorimu wind farm is a typical example. The viability of the project has been called into serious question after its application to install 127 turbines was cut back to 75 with detailed conditions of use, dropping the planned generation capacity by more than half. A panel of independent commissioners concluded that "the benefits derived in terms of renewable energy and climate change were not of sufficient national importance, national value and benefit to justify the significant adverse effects associated with landscape, amenity and cultural issues." The case is now headed for the Environment Court where hearings are expected to start in April.

Although the government has pushed its environmental credentials in renewable energy, it is seen as "long on talk and short on action." The New Zealand market has been compared unfavourably with that in Australia, where the recent change in government, simpler consenting processes and strong economy is seen as likely to provide more opportunities across the Tasman Sea.

A particular problem for smaller developers and those later to the market is the trend for multiple wind farm sites in the same area to be strongly opposed on visual amenity grounds. Proposed additional large-scale development in both the Tararua area and the Hawkes Bay region have seen drawn-out appeals processes. In ruling on Unison's plans, the Environment Court specifically stated that the cumulative effect of three wind farm projects in the area would be excessive.

The national mood towards wind power may be softening, however. In the region of capital city Wellington, the Puketiro wind project, being managed by RES New Zealand, is likely to come up against stiff opposition. But the Wellinton-based Dominion Post newspaper came out in favour of wind farms recently: "It is time for opponents of wind farms to get real. If they want hot showers in the morning and they don't want nuclear power plants or more smoke-belching coal or gas fired power plants constructed in New Zealand, then they have to accept the appearance of wind turbines on the horizon."

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