My thoughts on electricity policy in 2020


New Zealand faces numerous environmental and economic challenges going forwards into the 2020’s and beyond. One those challenges is ensuring we have an adequate energy supply without being environmentally irresponsible. This article outlines my thoughts on electricity policy in 2020.

I will start with the most obvious one. Hydroelectric power. Most New Zealanders can probably name at least one hydroelectric power station in this country. I have added a significantly longer, but not complete list below:

  • Waikato River: Aratiatia, Atiamuri, Whakamaru, Waipapa, Maraetai, Ohakuri, Arapuni and Karapiro; Tongariro Power Scheme: Rangipo and Tokaanu
  • Upper Waitaki: Tekapo A and B, Ohau A, B and C, Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki
  • Clutha River: Clyde and Roxburgh

The contribution of hydroelectric power is substantial with the power stations listed supplying about 3,400 megawatts of electricity and the total contribution being about 60% of our total generating capacity. Whilst there are calls to dam more rivers to supply clean energy, they come at great ecological cost to the rivers and not all of them are suitable for damming even if we did want to.

One possibility is that the out put of Manapouri power station, the largest hydroelectric power station in the country would be diverted to the national grid. This poses challenges as well as opportunities. In terms of challenges, could New Zealand’s grid take another 850 megawatts of electricity and if so, what would it mean for the market – the shares of shareholders in electricity companies would significantly weaken. A flip side would be the ability of thousands of New Zealanders who struggle with electricity bills each year to be able to pay them and stay warm.

Whilst I support the development of renewable energy sources, I am not so keen on the N.I.M.B.Y’ist politics that often go with such developments. The same people who talk about the need for green energy are often ones who grumble about a wind turbine when they see mangled birds on the ground or realize that these things are not altogether quiet. Would they rather another dam was built, thus depriving us of further unspoilt river?

Unlike others, I support the exploration of Waste-to-Energy as a potential source of energy. This is not to say I encourage the continuation of the waste stream just to power a W-t-E facility, but, I believe waste material that cannot be easily recycled should be sent to a W-t-E facility. In terms of where to locate such facilities, I believe the West Coast of the South Island is a good place to start. Whilst the West Coast has numerous rivers that the energy lobby would be interested in damming, there are several good reasons why we should not:

  1. Too many rivers are dammed or have been diverted in New Zealand for electricity generation already;
  2. The West Coast is seismically volatile and a major earthquake of up to magnitude 8 is likely in the working life of any dam built – it would have to be more robustly constructed than might be worth the cost
  3. The best candidates have unique natural characteristics that would be lost along with tourism operations that have been built up along side them

But there are two types of energy that I accept have no future. One is coal fired power. Coal is a sunset industry whose only hope of survival is to power a standby power station that is used when hydro-electric storage lakes are low due to dry conditions. Huntly power station which has four coal/gas units each capable of generating 250 megawatts has started replacing them, with its owner Genesis intending to completely remove coal by 2030.

The other is nuclear power. I have described in other other articles why there is no place for nuclear power in New Zealand, and why establishing such a power station would be prohibitively expensive and resource intensive.

There are other things New Zealand could be doing, which to the best of my knowledge it is not seriously considering. The first is solar energy. There are significant challenges facing solar energy, which include that the panels require rare earth minerals that are sourced from politically unstable parts of the world. The financial return from solar projects also raises questions about the viability of such a power source. Nonetheless that has not stopped a small scheme being established in south Auckland for industrial purposes.

The second we have actually given much political consideration to, for reasons of reducing the cost to householders to stay warm. However little practical thought as to HOW we do it – even though the answers are glaringly obvious – has been given. I am talking about the massive scale insulation of every state house in New Zealand and setting requirements for new houses. Politicians on the right will decry the regulations as red tape whilst politicians on the left will decry the social costs. Yet neither seem interested in a compromise. How, when – if at all – this ever takes place is anyone’s guess.

The incoming National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management


In 2014, a National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management was introduced. It was the first serious attempt to use the N.P.S. as an instrument to prescribe freshwater policy in New Zealand. The N.P.S.-F.M. which was amended in 2017 will be superseded by a new one this week. But how keen are politicians on improving our freshwater resource?

On the centre-right, National, whose voter base is dominated by farmers and business owners is not keen and National leader Judith Collins initially said that the reforms would be “gone by lunch time”. Although Ms Collins has since back tracked somewhat, the overall support in the party for improvement of the resource is low and generally viewed as unnecessary red tape.

On the centre-left, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is supporting the new N.P.S.-F.M. which seeks to broadly overhaul the checks and balances on use of the resource by farmers. The broad aims are to reduce the presence of livestock in freshwater bodies including lowland streams and smaller rivers, to require farms to have management plans and data loggers recording their water takes from groundwater and surface water sources.

New Zealand has a long and deep association with its freshwater resource. We use it for electricity generation; a multitude of water sports; farming; industrial and domestic uses. It supports an array of fisheries, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Maori iwi have ancestral linkages to the freshwater, its use for transportation, as a source of kai, and as ancestors the strength of the mauri (life force) is an indicator of its health. In the central North Island, Tainui whose ancestral lands cover much of Waikato are strongly linked to the river of the same name, in the same way that Ngati Tuwharetoa are linked to the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park and Ngai Tahu to Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Causes of the decline in fresh water quality can be traced to excessive nutrients going into freshwater, mainly from dairy farms. If waterways are not appropriately fenced off cows will urinate/defecate in the water. The break down of this introduces high levels of nitrogen which is bad for aquatic life in the streams, which in turn impact on the fish. In urban areas a failure to adequately treat runoff from roofs, road surfaces and industrial sites means a range of heavy metals find their way into water bodies such as the Avon or Heathcote Rivers in Christchurch.

The 2020 N.P.S.-F.M. takes effect on 03 September 2020.

 

Big changes looming for Resource Management Act


Yesterday the biggest amendment to the Resource Management Act – its possible complete overhaul, or replacement – was announced by the Minister for the Environment, David Parker. The announcement was of the release of a report by Tony Randerson, recommending the replacement of the Act.

Since it was formed, A.C.T. has been a proponent of scrapping the R.M.A. altogether. However when I have asked them what they would replace it with, usually the answer has been a stony silence or the subject has been changed.

Most National Party members I have talked to seem to be in a similar boat. They say that it would be replaced with sensible legislation, but no one has elaborated on what “sensible legislation” might look like.

New Zealand First and the Greens have not announced an R.M.A. related policy at the time of writing this. Labour has said that it will campaign on the recommendation of the report released yesterday.

But is it entirely the R.M.A.’s fault that it got to the state that we find it in today? Not necessarily. New Zealand was very slow to realize that the statutory plans each council is required to prepare varied wildly in terms of content, presentation and usability. It was not until 2017 that National Planning Standards were introduced.

The R.M.A., like any other Act of Parliament is only as good as its implementation. As the implementation of the Act falls to the various local councils, ministries and governments, it is they who must bear responsibility for this. As councils budgets are restricted by the size of their rate payer base, sometimes they have not got sufficient staff to adequately cover their statutory responsibilities. This can lead to half baked planning outcomes that were not properly thought through.

When the R.M.A. was first introduced it was about 400 pages long. Today it is about 800 pages long.

It will be interesting to read the Randerson report into one of New Zealand’s most controversial pieces of legislation, and see what the justifications are given.

Rio Tinto being selfish in announcing closure of Tiwai Point smelter


For sometime now, Rio have been threatening to walk away from the Tiwai Point smelter. Past attempts have involved the Government agreeing to lower the price of electricity. But now Rio say that the circumstances simply do not permit them to hang on to the Tiwai Point smelter any longer. The plant will close in late 2021.

This is the same Rio that has had significant I believe that Rio Tinto are being quite selfish, and are showing they are not good corporate citizens. After all, Rio have been given N.Z.$30 million of taxpayer money to keep their employees paid for the duration of the COVID19 emergency. It is also the same Rio Tinto that has been subsidised in an effort to keep costs down and keep jobs in New Zealand.

Although the Government has announced plans for a list of “shovel ready” projects to help Southland through these tough times, the devastation that losing so many jobs will have, is difficult to overstate. 2,260 jobs are expected to go, of which nearly 1,000 will be at the smelter itself and the rest in related industries.

Rio Tinto also owe Mataura, where a significant tonnage of dross has been dumped, an apology. Gore District Council has a fairly small rate payer base and cannot be expected to pick up the tab for a problem that was not of its making. The problem came about when 10,000 tonnes of dross was dumped in an old paper mill on the banks of the Mataura River. It then became an emergency when the Mataura River threatened to flood the mill after days of prolonged heavy rain. Days earlier there was a handshake agreement between G.D.C., New Zealand Aluminium Smelter to address the issue, which was vetoed by Rio without explanation.

Research from Hokkaido University however, suggests it is possible to convert dross to hydrogen using a process involving dross and distilled water. In the process the aluminium powder and distilled water is placed in a pressure resistant reactor, with a desired constant water flow using a liquid pump. The liquid temperature in the reactor increased due to the exothermic reaction given by Al + OH + 3H2O = 1.5H2 + Al(OH)4 + 415.6 kJ.

In the case of Gore, even if a hydrogen plant was a shovel ready project, and there was demand for the hydrogen created, due to the proximity of the dross to the Mataura River only an industrial scale clean up can adequately dispose of that much material. It is possible that the Government may be left with no choice but to foot the bill itself, in which case Rio Tinto should be taken court with a warning it will be excluded from the New Zealand mining scene if it does not come clean.

 

Is New Zealand First about to be subject of Serious Fraud Office announcement?


Minister for Fisheries Stuart Nash has apologized to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and New Zealand First Member of Parliament Shane Jones for comments made in a telephone call, which aired on television two nights ago. But as this apology goes to air, New Zealand First are facing the prospect of a potential Serious Fraud Office announcement, following revelations that Talleys Fisheries organized two New Zealand First fundraisers.

Perhaps this is related to another suspected fire onboard the good ship New Zealand First. For months there have been concerns about a New Zealand First Foundation, which Talleys has made donations totalling at least $27,000 to. The donations themselves, I should be clear now are not the problem. The problem is how they were handled – or not handled. If the N.Z.F.F. is not part of the party then the likely offences are corrupt or otherwise illegal practices. If the N.Z.F.F. IS a part of the Party then the Party Secretary could be accused of offences around the maintenance of records or failing to declare donations.

In March of this year, a former New Zealand First Member of Parliament and advisor Ross Meurant lifted the lid on his time in the party following an investigation into the N.Z.F.F. by Stuff in 2019.

Potentially serious stuff.

Irrespective of whether Mr Jones wanted to stop camera’s from being placed on fishing trawlers, there is a good case for them being there. Those of you who have followed this blog for awhile will know that I have been following the activities of trawlers around New Zealand, particularly after some serious incidents at the start of the 2010’s. New Zealand marine fisheries are viewed by some as a sort of wild west in terms of (un)lawful conduct, by other nations.

New Zealand’s human rights record, which I take more seriously, is also at risk if we do not make sure that fishing vessels are compliant with New Zealand law and be prepared to prosecute their owners then they are not. The Oyang case, the scampi and hoki allegations show that the actual corruption in the industry is as great as the potential corruption. That it involves Ministers of the Crown is something everyone should be paying attention to.