"People are disappearing across the Tasman," said Alistair Wilson of Financial Engineered Solutions Ltd, who has been involved with some major wind farm developments. He has bumped into many Kiwis in Australia and has noted strong interest from local researchers in gaining commercial contracts from their Australian counterparts. "The government's SOEs are busier in Australia than in New Zealand," he said of New Zealand's state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
New Zealand has a long, if low key, history of wind research through programs operated by the SOEs -- public universities and Crown research institutes. Although greater emphasis in recent years has been on commercial funding and applications, much of this work is still supported by the contestable Public Good Science Fund (PGSF) operated by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
But, as conference delegate Ralph Sims noted, PGSF's spending on renewables is less than that on internal parasites in sheep and cattle. Sims is a renewables researcher from Massey University. Other speakers were concerned that the bulk of renewables research money has been swallowed up by geothermal projects.
Challenged by these complaints, research minister Pete Hodgson questioned whether the scientific community had sufficient resources in either people or projects to make a suitable impression on the distributors of PGSF funds. Rumblings from other speakers noted that it is a chicken-and-egg situation -- without research funding to underpin industry development, the people and projects will not hang around in New Zealand. Simon Faulkner, of PB Power, pointed out that electricity market liberalisation affected not only commercial activities, but also the research sector, as the former electricity giant ECNZ was a prime funder of such research.
Asked if the government would earmark more research dollars for the sector, Hodgson stated that at the project level, he had no sway over what was funded. At the strategic level, the science community could expect a more conducive research environment with a change in strategy and focus. As to whether New Zealand could support a wind turbine manufacturing industry, Hodgson was uncertain. Wind would not get preferential treatment, he stressed, and would have to rely on stronger business policies and business growth creating an economy more able to support the development of a new area such as wind turbine manufacture.
Wilson argued that the country's strong winds, high-powered gusts and maritime environments place special stress on machinery, particularly at the large-scale end, and buying wind turbines overseas was not necessarily the best solution. He also feared New Zealand could face supply problems because it was geographically at the end of an overseas supply chain. "New Zealand is going to find it difficult to attract good quality wind turbines. There'll be a long wait."
The industry opportunity had already been lost to Australia, he felt. "New Zealand has missed the boat. The best we can hope for is blade manufacture, if we're lucky, because of our fibreglass expertise." This has largely grown out of the winning America's Cup campaigns in the world of yacht racing.