October 7, 2008

Wind Blows for Us All


While Palmerston North City Council has walked a tightrope between commercial imperatives and local loyalties over the past four years, Mighty River Power's stance has always been clear - they want to generate electricity and make money. Civic reporter Katie Chapman found out the State Owned Enterprise's views on the issues. - ------------------- We need electricity.

Wind can create electricity.

Mighty River Power (MRP) can harvest wind.

Simple? That's the way it is, and MRP makes no secret about it.

The company's website proclaims: "Energy is integral to modern society. Our primary objective is the ongoing production and provision of renewable energy to New Zealand, now and for generations to come."

The key word, group strategist Neil Williams says, is "renewable".

The Government has committed to having 90 percent renewable energy by 2025.

As a State Owned Enterprise MRP has a key role to play in reaching that goal, and wind is an important resource, he says.

"Wind power currently only accounts for about 1.5 percent of the electrical energy generated in New Zealand. We believe there is considerable potential to increase that proportion."

And, as far as world wind resources go, the Tararua Ranges are one of the best, unique in New Zealand and internationally.

"The northern Tararua Ranges have long been identified as an area with an abundant wind resource . . . more consistent, and of high enough speed, to make it a wind resource that is . . . unique. . ."

Frequently cited figures put the site in the top 5 percent in the world for wind power.

But, while the public generally accepts the country needs more power, it is the scale of the proposed Turitea Wind Farm that has some people balking.

Is it really necessary to have 131 turbines, some within 700 metres of houses?

Original documents from 2006, when the reserve status was changed to allow electricity generation, suggest 63 in the reserve and an "undisclosed number" on private land.

The application is now for 66 in the reserve, and 70 outside, totalling 136 turbine sites. Of those, only 131 will be built.

On top of that, there are pylons, cables and substations to make sure the energy harvested can be sent to the national grid.

Even city councillors who voted for the reserve change concede they never imagined that many turbines.

But, MRP was always upfront, Mr Williams says. "It was never intended that the project would be entirely contained within the reserve, and we have always been entirely open about that."

And, as for the distance from houses - "all the turbine locations proposed comply with the Palmerston North district plans and relevant national standards and guidelines."

Projects development manager Stuart McDonnell explained at the time why the details were kept hidden until just before the resource consent application was lodged.

The information could not have been provided earlier because it didn't exist at that stage. Major investigations into the shape a wind farm might take only began after the land use change was confirmed and the conditions set.

"Until we got that, certainly we couldn't get down to the detail."

Other concerns have focused on the potential environmental effect of a wind farm on the reserve, especially since it is home to the city's main water supply.

Those concerns are justified, Mr Williams says, but he is confident any potential impacts can be mitigated.

"The nature of wind projects, like all electricity generation projects, is that they do carry some environmental impact."

The council's decision from 2006 puts in place some protections for the water reserve, specifying where turbines could be located and insisting on a $20 million public liability insurance policy for the water supply.

That relationship with the city council has also been fraught, as people questioned whether it compromised the independence of the parties.

Mr Williams says it doesn't, and he is happy with the relationship.

"The agreement acknowledges that council has certain public or statutory functions as a territorial authority outside of the agreement. The agreement provides that council's obligations under the agreement cannot fetter council undertaking its public or statutory functions.

"We have a constructive relationship with the Palmerston North City Council and have had since being selected as their development partner in late 2005."

Yet, despite this "constructive relationship", MRP has applied for a ministerial call-in on the project, a step that would fast- track the project, by-passing the council's part in the resource consent process.

At a public meeting about the call-in, councillors unanimously voted to oppose it, and many condemned MRP for making the request.

Breaking of trust and "bullying tactics" were among the comments around the table.

But Mr Williams says it's all about efficiency, not bullying.

"When it comes to significant wind projects, decisions made at a local level are almost inevitably appealed to the Environment Court; asking the minister to refer the project direct to the Environment Court or a board of inquiry offers the most efficient way for the matter to be heard in a transparent manner and still provide opportunity for local input." And, after all, that means getting more electricity, sooner.

Tomorrow: We've heard from the city council and Mighty River Power, but what about the residents?

And finally:

Wednesday: We look at the cumulative effect on the Manawatu skyline.

(c) 2008 Evening Standard; Palmerston North, New Zealand. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.