The New Zealand electricity industry has been restructured from near monopoly to an open wholesale electricity market. Several New Zealand companies are eager to start wind energy development. The infrastructure of New Zealand offers excellent potential for wind plants. Small scale wind farms which can easily be enlarged are likely to be the most popular starting position for new projects. New Zealand has a good manufacturing potential and its front-driven weather patterns and strong winds offer unique conditions as testing laboratories for manufacturers from all over the world.

New Zealand electricity utilities are doing more than just monitoring wind speeds and thinking about wind energy -- there is at least 300 MW of wind farms under serious consideration, according to engineer Paul van Lieshout.

Van Lieshout is with DesignPower New Zealand Ltd, which has been providing engineering consultancy services to 12 New Zealand companies keen to start wind energy development. The company's Development Technologies and Wind Power Group has been looking at a combined installed capacity of 300 MW in the North Island alone, and will be considering additional South Island sites.

"We have four team members working solely on wind power. That says something about the state of the industry in New Zealand," says van Lieshout. The team is the fastest growing group in DesignPower, and numerous late-night sessions in recent months attest to the surge in wind power interest.

Fuelling the development has been the restructuring of the New Zealand electricity industry, going from the near monopoly of ECNZ (Electricity Corporation of New Zealand) to a open wholesale electricity market. Competition in the new market and the opening up of power generation opportunities is expected to encourage the expansion into wind. Numerous utilities, including ECNZ, Energy Direct, Wairarapa Electricity and Marlborough Electric, have expressed interest in wind energy, but most are keeping any details about their plans quiet pending resource consent hearings.

Van Lieshout says that many are also waiting for the political situation in the electricity industry to cool down, citing a number of amalgamations and takeovers in progress. "There are so many unknownsÉsix weeks is a very long time in the power industry right now," he says. While this can make it difficult to undertake long-term planning, electricity providers are aware of the opportunities that wind offers and are already doing their homework. Van Lieshout is not keen to predict who will be the first to break into the market, saying that they are all running pretty close together, but he is certain that it will not be many months before the spades hit the dirt.

Public meetings

Wellington-based Energy Direct has been holding public meetings to gauge interest in and reactions to wind power and the results of these, and other survey work, have been positive. Noise has been one of the major issues as many of the proposed sites are close to built-up areas and, inevitably, support for wind power has a tendency to be counteracted by the "nimby" (not in my backyard) syndrome. The coastal area around Baring Head, east of Wellington, has been tapped by Energy Direct as a first-class site for a wind farm, with average wind speeds of 10 m/s. It could support a wind farm initially of 10-15 MW, according to Van Lieshout, and has the added advantage of having the prevailing winds approach over water, reducing potential turbulence. Perhaps more importantly it is also nine kilometres from any suburbs, reducing concerns about visual and noise pollution.

Van Lieshout was cheered by a supportive editorial in a local magazine, "City Voice." Editor Simon Collins pointed out the environmental advantages of deferring the building of coal and/or gas-fired power stations in favour of wind farms. Like many of the sites being considered in the North Island, the Baring Head area is close to transmission facilities and has good roads and other infrastructure. The larger urban areas offer excellent possibilities, particularly the country's largest city and major load centre, Auckland, as sites close to cities mean no need for long lines.

The South Island presents more of a challenge as it, ironically, has a surplus of energy -- only so much electricity from the region's large hydro schemes can be channelled through the Cook Strait cable joining the two islands. Despite that, there are definite opportunities on the "mainland," and DesignPower already has one client there looking at possible sites for development. One likely area for development, according to Van Lieshout, is in strengthening the end of village systems by removing transmission lines and putting in wind-diesel systems. Given the problem of replacing 50 to 70 kilometres of lines that could be as much as 50 years old, at $15,000 per kilometre, it would not be surprising if those involved chose to go with wind or hybrid systems.

Small start most likely

New Zealand developers could choose to go for bulk supply, building wind farms of 100-200 MW, says van Lieshout, but he believes that things are likely to start off more slowly. "I don't believe we'll see many 100 MW wind farms, but smaller five, ten, 15 megawatt. A wind farm is a pretty safe bet. You can install some and then add to it. You can't build a tiny little hydro station and then enlarge it."

One client has already discussed putting in a 100 MW farm, building it up in 10 MW units over time. The plans are serious, as forecasts suggest that the country will need a further 100-200 MW a year over the next 25 years to meet demand.

"The power has to come from somewhere," Van Lieshout says, noting there will have to be a rise in electricity prices to enable wind to compete. Such a rise is expected with market development. At present, electricity prices in New Zealand are low, a "problem" blamed on ECNZ's control over bulk electricity prices. Van Lieshout contends that, despite this, wind power in New Zealand is on the verge of becoming economically viable.

A paper prepared for the Ministry of Commerce suggested that 40% of the country's electricity needs could be met by wind; others contend that that figure could be much higher. Van Lieshout firmly believes that New Zealand could end up with all its electricity produced by renewable means, acknowledging that the 75% hydro production means that the country is already "pretty green" . The large hydro base also offers the advantage of providing storage capacity for the wind energy, switching levels up and down to follow power variations.

One unforeseen flow-on effect could be in the tourism industry. New Zealand already has a strong image as a "clean, green" nation, in part because of its strong anti-nuclear stance and environmental awareness. "If you fly into Wellington and you see a wind farm and you see a sign saying this is a nuclear-free city, you think `hey, these people mean it'," says van Lieshout. "I bet Wellington will be very proud of that wind farm."

While the environmental factors are attractive, van Lieshout is quick to say that the drive by the utilities is one based on pragmatics, rather than principles. Any development has to be done on an economic basis, he avers, with the companies aware of the interests of their shareholders and governed by the instructions of their respective boards. "It's going to go slowly but it has to be done on its economic merits."

Van Lieshout recently presented a paper to the country's premier science body, the Royal Society of New Zealand, and received their support. Also attending the meeting were representatives from a variety of industries -- steel, glass fibre, electronics and others. Van Lieshout is keen to point out the manufacturing potential for New Zealand firms, whether initially looking at simple production of concrete towers or going on to do design work and even export of blades and turbines. "We want to make the market ready for wind power," he says, adding that DesignPower intends to remain, providing consultant engineering services to development, rather than getting into manufacturing. The company has already begun overseas work, looking at wind energy opportunities in Indonesia, the Philippines and China. "DesignPower is the first consultancy firm with an independent wind team not attached to a manufacturer," he says.

Tough test lab

Van Lieshout is interested in having overseas manufacturers seriously consider New Zealand as a future market and made aware that the wind scene is quickly developing here. He expects that the first wind farms will be supplied with overseas turbines with later ones manufactured under license as the industry expands. He believes that New Zealand could act as a testing laboratory for manufacturers from around the world. "If it will last here, it'll last everywhere," he quips, referring to New Zealand's tough wind regime.

ECNZ's demonstration wind turbine, a Vestas V27 225 kW machine, has provided an excellent example of those good winds to interested parties. It clocked up its first gigawatt-hour in just over a year, which is thought to be a record for a wind turbine of its type and size. "That turbine is doing a wonderful job," says van Lieshout. He cites its capacity factor of 51% last year, adding that a 51-65% rating would be possible for most sites in New Zealand. "That's just incredible," he comments. Recent months have seen a steeply rising learning curve as the companies involved come up to speed with current wind technology. Van Lieshout says that of particular concern was the question of reliability. "They want to be sure the equipment will last."

It's a reasonable concern, given the turbulent conditions common in New Zealand. The strong, gusty winds means that not all wind turbines are suitable and part of van Lieshout's job has been to look at suitable designs. The high wind speeds and the front-driven weather patterns are unique to New Zealand, making appropriate adaptation of incoming turbine designs important. Many sites have an average wind speed of 14 m/s, and engineers will have to think about what speeds cut-out should occur at. Any turbines with survival wind speeds of 55 m/s or less, for example, "might as well forget it" under New Zealand conditions. Add this weather to rough, mountainous terrain, and local machines will need to have good compliancy and accurate output control.

The image of the ideal turbine is emerging, says van Lieshout confidently, though it's still too early to settle on a specific design. "We can see the technology emerging, particularly for the New Zealand high wind speed environment. We're just keeping our eyes open."

Wind power is not just a job for Van Lieshout. Concerns about the development of nuclear power in his home country of the Netherlands saw him eventually emigrate to New Zealand, after working on wind energy in both Holland and the United States. "I've spent the last 14 years living off the wind. I like that." Van Lieshout believes that he's picked the best place for a wind energy engineer. "It's an extremely exciting place -- there's no other place in the world like it."