"We expect the wind farm to be operational within about nine months and that will mark the beginning of a new era in New Zealand's electricity industry," says company chairman Doug Matheson. With a head start in the race for resource consents under New Zealand's strict Resource Management Act, the utility had always been a front-runner. Jeff Kendrew, Wairarapa Electricity's general manager for distribution, puts his company's speedy passage through the legal red tape down to the extensive consultation undertaken before consent was applied for.
"We tried to consult with every party that could conceivably have an interest -- all adjacent landowners, DoC [the Department of Conservation], the Regional Council, Telecom, Maori groups." The company gained written consent from all parties and, with no objections put forward, the council was able put the application through a non-notified planning procedure which did not require public input.
The other leading candidate for New Zealand's first wind farm -- EnergyDirect of Hutt -- ran into problems with strong public opposition to its proposed site at Baring Head. Wairarapa Electricity's site, south of the small farming town of Martinborough, did not have the problem of high visibility and a vociferous nearby urban population. Kendrew acknowledges that the Regional Council has required a number of steps to minimise the potential for visual pollution, including uniformity of blade rotation and wind turbine model. A public viewing area is being developed, partly to try and discourage people tramping across the private land on which the wind farm will be sited. Wairarapa Electricity also has a "no interference" agreement with Telecom, the country's national telecommunications provider. A small microwave station near the site serves the telephone needs of around half-a-dozen nearby farms.
The utility is confident that it will gain good returns from the site -- notoriously windy and named "Haunui," the Maori word for "strong wind." One report notes: "At some times during the year, the school bus is unable to operate."
Given these sorts of conditions, Wairarapa Electricity was keen to find a competent supplier of variable speed turbines. Kendrew says the company called for registrations of interest from 15 well known wind turbine manufacturers and developers, receiving replies from a surprising 17. From this list, four manufacturers and one developer were invited to tender and negotiations were started with the top three. Enercon's variable speed technology was considered suitable for the local weak grid connection and Kendrew acknowledges that a good price and terms were negotiated, though the difference between Enercon and the other contenders was "not large."
"We have benefited from being the first in the pricing we have secured and the project will show a positive return on our investment," says Matheson. The company has received offers of finance from banks in both Germany and New Zealand, but has yet to decide on its funding approach.
Of the NZ$8.8 million, some $2.7 million will be spent locally, predominantly with contractors for jobs such as foundation work, road construction, and transportation. Production of the 42 meter steel towers for the turbines is to be tendered out and is also expected to go to a local firm. The power generated will be distributed through the company's existing transmission network, and there are plans for some upgrading of the grid to minimise electrical losses.
Wairarapa Electricity has a second site in mind at Glencalum Farm on the south Wairarapa Coast where it is conducting a feasibility study. The area's lower wind speed, however, makes it uneconomic to proceed at this stage. The company has said there is potential for a 30 turbine wind farm there, but with a price tag of NZ$30 million, it will be some time before that development takes place.