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New Zealand

Conference airs both sides og wind debate

New Zealand wind developers have found they must educate a sceptic population about wind power and navigate carefully through strict environmental legislation. This was the main message of the first NZWEA wind conference.

New Zealand's first national wind energy conference was more than just a meeting of like minds. Not only did it draw participants from wind power's academic and industrial ranks, it also attracted opponents to wind energy development in New Zealand, who were given the opportunity to air and discuss their concerns in front of an expert audience. Indeed, siting and planning of wind farms -- and legislative and resource management barriers to their development -- emerged as a major theme of the one day event.

Held in Wellington in June, the conference was organised and sponsored by the newly formed New Zealand Wind Energy Association (NZWEA) and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA). It drew an audience of 120, double the expected attendance, whose dominant mood was clearly one of enthusiastic support for wind power. "You're gifted with a wonderful natural resource," said keynote speaker Paul Gipe, a veteran of the California wind industry. He pointed out that New Zealand was in the rare position of being able to provide all its energy needs from renewable sources -- hydro, geothermal and wind.

From EECA, Fiona Weightman said she was pleased to see such diversity of participants. The conference, she noted, had helped to bring together representatives from industry, academia, environmental groups and concerned residents to hear about the issues and discuss them in the session and, more informally, during the "networking breaks." Following her theme, NZWEA's Alistair Wilson called for his colleagues to encourage those who are anti-wind to become informed and to play a part in the development of wind energy. It is necessary, he said, to take critics on board as well as players.

One group of critics, the Makara Guardians Inc, made themselves known early in the day. These 100 or so residents live near the site of the proposed Makara wind farm of 40-80 turbines outside Wellington, to be developed by the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand's (ECNZ).

"Makara Guardians Inc accepts that renewable energy sources must be investigated as a matter of importance, but maintains there is no good reason why large rural communities should suffer the negative effects of wind power generation and so have their quality of life compromised," the group told the conference. "All that ECNZ will end up generating at Makara will be resentment and acrimony. The consequent hardening of public attitude will be seriously damaging for the case for renewable energy in New Zealand. Those developers considering their own future wind power projects will find their way blocked by reluctant residents and adverse public opinion."

ECNZ's Graeme Mills told conference participants that Makara has one of the best wind resources in the country, good existing access and little visual impact on the city environs. Furthermore, it has nearby grid connection points to provide distribution to Wellington City. But The Makara Guardians' Jennifer Jorgensen argued that 100 houses were located within two kilometres of the site, as well as a golf club, kindergarten and pony club. She said wind farms should be located on isolated properties out of sight and hearing, rather than in "Wellington City's rural recreation area." She backed the claim with information from Hau Nui -- New Zealand's first commercial wind farm. Among other gripes, she said Hau Nui visually pollutes its surroundings with "towering turbines 60 to 100 metres high situated just 300 meters from homes," devaluating them and possibly harming them with radiation.

ECNZ has undertaken a broad consultation process to identify concerns among public agencies and the public, noting a "high level of suspicion" among an otherwise open-minded and willing population.

Pushing the envelope

Gaining administrative consent for wind farm development was a related topic dominating the day's discussions, with particular reference to the strict Resource Management Act (RMA) of 1991. In order for ECNZ to proceed with the Makara proposal, it must apply for siting permission through the RMA. Officials said they expect to lodge the Makara application later this year using a general "envelope" to describe the nature and requirements of the site. This approach considers the range of likely development options and the effects of various turbine and layout combinations.

"Because of the uncertainty as to timing, the rapid evolution of current technology and the effects basis of the RMA, we do not wish to obtain consent for a project that is tied to a specific make or size of turbine and thus to a specific layout for the wind farm development," Mills explained. "To avoid problems of consenting a wind farm design that is technically obsolete by the time it is built, or where a single manufacturer has a monopoly on providing design and machines, resource consents will be sought on the basis of an envelope of environmental effects." Worst case scenarios define the limits of the envelope, governing visual simulations, noise assessments, construction requirements and so forth, forming the basis for ongoing discussion and consultation.

Representing the public agencies' side, John Holmes of the Wellington Regional Council (WRC) had the full attention of participants. "Wind energy is a good idea, but we need to find good places," Holmes said. He warned developers to be aware of the requirements and responsibilities at local and national levels, thoroughly assessing proposals without assuming that just because wind power is a renewable resource this is sufficient to justify its use in a particular location.

He referred to the council's opposition of a proposed site at Baring Head, east of Wellington, saying that while this gave the WRC "pretty bad press," the reasons behind the council's refusal of the project were more sophisticated than a "not in my backyard" or NIMBY attitude. He explained that the WRC's Regional Policy Statement sets a broad direction for environmental management in the Wellington region, involving environmental, social and other variables; when considered, Baring Head proved to be a bad site. Additionally, it came under the aegis of the East Harbour Regional Park Management Plan, which covers land use in the area involved. A new Regional Landscape Plan also has to be considered, Holmes said.

The WRC was aware that the Baring Head proposal was the first of a new type. Wind development generally involves "non-complying" or "discretionary" activities that are not dealt with under the laws governing land use and resource consents at local and national levels. As such they are closely examined and will often be publicly announced in a process that can take months, with hearings and appeals over a year or more. Two years on from the original (declined) consent process, Energy Direct, now TransAlta, has withdrawn its Baring Head proposal.

RMA's blocking effect

The demise of the Baring head project drew the attention of New Zealand's energy minister, Max Bradford. He called the RMA into question. His concerns echoed those of a growing number of wind supporters who are worried about the RMA's potential to halt wind development in New Zealand. But Steve Bielby, from the legal firm that represented the Wellington and Hutt city councils at Energy Direct's appeal to the Environment Court, asked whether it was fair to blame the RMA for blocking development. "Rather than setting up the RMA as a conservationist bogeyman, it is critical to focus on working through its requirements," Bielby said. "This will be particularly important over the next five years while the first wind farms and their effects are established."

Bielby said that as more development takes place it is likely there will be a greater focus on the processes involved. While concerns have been raised at the rather broad brush approach the RMA takes to avoiding, mitigating or remedying adverse environmental effects of development, Bielby echoed other speakers in stressing that such issues have to be addressed -- particularly as most wind farm developments are likely to be open for public debate.

"Developers should be seeking opportunities to develop district plan provisions with territorial authorities which facilitate appropriate development," he advised. "Early consultation may generate opportunities to make changes or at least identify sites and methods which may be most favourably viewed if applications proceed."

In addition, Bielby recommended that the wind industry begin a process of public education to help foster a climate of acceptance, and to reduce the amount of costly and time consuming public objections, contested hearings and appeals. "This is as much a reality as selection of the right turbine technology and should be factored into development planning over the coming period," he said. He recommended that developers educate authorities about the benefits of wind power. "Unfortunately someone is going to have to lead the charge on this -- I want a volunteer."

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