Wind lobby puts minister on the spot

In the wake of recent energy shortages, New Zealand's government released a new strategy to integrate renewable energy systems. But critics say the policy is sending out the wrong message

"Long on rhetoric and short on action," was the judgement meted out to the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy by Alistair Wilson of the New Zealand Wind Energy Association (NZWEA) at its annual conference last month. "Renewables are very much the poor cousin, providing a nice gloss in press releases and publication pictures, but in reality nothing to move the industry forward to allow it to contribute to diversifying New Zealand's energy supply, and to a clean green sustainable future," Wilson said.

His panning of the government's new energy policy was backed by Jeanette Fitzsimons of the small but influential Green Party. She told the conference that "sustainability measures have been put on the back burner to deal with when the market structure and commercial relationships are in place -- if in fact they are ever dealt with at all." New Zealand suffered a power shortage crisis during the winter, which the government responded to by calling for energy savings throughout the country as the level of hydro power lakes dropped to dangerously low levels.

The new strategy goes a step further and specifies goals on efficient use of resources, minimising hydro spill and greenhouse gases, and facilitating distributed generation and the use of renewable energy. But Fitzsimons is highly critical of the government's approach. "The message this muddle and bad management risks sending New Zealand is first that renewable energy is risky so we need more fossil energy, and second that energy conservation is something you turn on and off, it means going without, and should only be considered in times of national emergency. These messages could well be the most damaging things to come out of the winter."

Policy defence

The government's approach was robustly defended at NZWEA's conference, however, by energy minister Pete Hodgson. He sees the new strategy, released in September, as a milestone in the country's attempts to deal with its energy requirements and its climate change obligations. He admitted, though, that the renewable energy section of the strategy was the most difficult to develop. "The draft strategy's target for renewables was to increase renewable energy supply by a defined quantity by 2012. By March, when it was released, we had not had time to do enough background research to reach an informed view on what that defined quantity should be," he explained.

Hodgson cited a number of complexities he blamed for this, including difficulties in predicting total energy demands, the impact of energy efficiency strategies, and uncertainties regarding how cost effective renewable supply will be due to technological changes and to differences in individual cases. Climate change responsibilities also cause uncertainty, according to Hodgson.

"Nobody can be sure how much we might reduce the cost of meeting our climate change obligations in 2008-12 by pushing the development of the renewables sector in the shorter term. A renewables target, particularly if it is a mandatory target, will have important implications for all New Zealanders. If we go too high, the costs will outweigh the benefits; if we go too low we risk short-changing ourselves," he said.

NZWEA criticised

The strategy's target for renewables is looking to increase renewable energy supply "from all types of renewables including hydro, wind, solar and biomass" to provide a further 25-55 peta joule (PJ) of consumer energy by 2012, an increase of 19-42% from the current 29% of the market to as much as 35%. The strategy notes that the last decade has seen a drop in the market share of renewables, with no significant change in supplies to consumers in the last seven years.

Hodgson took a swipe at NZWEA's criticism of the strategy's lack of detail, citing these figures. NZWEA has criticised the strategy for having no "how much" and "by when" renewable energy target, Hodgson pointed out. "It was a lazy comment and it didn't do anything to advance the debate," he added. If the association wants influence, Hodgson continued, it will have to "come up with some more reasoned and constructive criticism than that."

More work on the renewable targets is in progress, with the aim of producing specific policy mechanism and legislative requirements early next year. Following formal consultations with stakeholders, a final package will be presented to the government Cabinet in July, with implementation at the latest aimed for the end of 2003.

It cannot come fast enough for the NZWEA, particularly having just come through another winter where New Zealand's hydro power lakes reached alarmingly low levels. The situatioon is still the same as that a year ago, with the government saying "we are working on it" and "it's maybe a year away," says a frustrated Wilson. "This strategy does not provide the certainty necessary for new renewable generation investments that could avert possible further hydro electricity shortages next winter."