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.

When geomorphology and human existence collide

As a natural hazards postgraduate, and one with a natural interest in geomorophological processes, I have been talking to people about their perceptions of the changes wrought by the Waiau earthquake of 14 November 2016. It has been a topic of conversation that people have generally readily participated in.

From these conversations I have deduced that a lot of people – both elected officials trying to sound positive in the face of adversity, and people not really understanding the hidden geomorphological process – do not understand the scale of the changes wrought. There are perceptions that somehow the road and railways will reopen again shortly. There are perceptions that the landslide dam hazard will last only a few weeks and then everything will be back to normal, that rivers will flow like they had before the earthquakes. Unfortunately that is not going to be the case.

One of the numerous effects that the landslide damming of these rivers will have is to change the ecology of them. Some of the smaller landslides will not affect the rivers in the long term, as the river will carve out a channel around the toe of the landslide, which in turn will be washed away or stabilize as a permanent feature. Larger landslides however may semi-permanently dam the rivers whose catchment they occurred in, so that the ecology downstream and how people use the river as a resource change too. The largest landslides will completely dam rivers, leading to one of two outcomes:

  1. The river stablizes, and water is able to safely drain into the river without undermining the dam
  2. A potentially catastrophic dam burst event where the dam fails and a large volume of water potentially in the 000’s m³s-¹ occurs

Following and during the latter outcome, a large amount of sediment will be deposited in a very short time, which will completely relay the layout of the riverbed channels. With channels that were occupied now suddenly buried, that means the water may start flowing down old channels that might not have been occupied since before European settlement. Rivers in Kaikoura and Hurunui Districts are affected by landslides, a list of which can be seen on the Environment Canterbury website:


In the short term with summer coming on and these rivers being popular for fishing, canoeing/kayaking, boating, but also supplying irrigation water to farms and drinking water to a number of small towns, the availability of water could be severely impaired because of the reduced flows. In many small towns where rivers provide recreational opportunities that are the livelihoods of local businesses, the combination of severe flash flood hazards from landslide dams and river levels being too low for jet boat tours, and so forth a lean summer might await. There is also a risk that some of the smaller dams may fail in this time causing short sharp flash flood events where anyone and any property on the affected river bed would be in immediate danger.

In the medium term consents for water takes might change as the long term effects of the landslide dams starts to become clear. Rivers that might have had 15-20 cubic metres per second of flow during summer and be able to allow small takes of water for irrigation might not be able to supply that water any longer. Rivers that have landslide dams on them that are stable, may cease to flow or be reduced so much that any remaining water has to remain in the river just to enable it to perform its ecological and geomorphological functions. In the medium term it will also become clear which rivers will now start to rearrange their floodplains as the volumes of landslide debris that fell into the catchments now starts to get flushed out by floods. Heavy rainfall events causing slips and future earthquakes triggering fresh landslides will happen, potentially causing unforeseen aggradation and avulsion events to start.

The long term will see District and Regional Councils reviewing how they manage landslide dam hazards within their boundaries. They will be forced to examine the legal issues that go with land titles suddenly ending up in a river bed when, under the influence of large volumes of sediment being reworked through their systems, a river begins to avulse to a new course, possibly cutting across properties and livelihoods. Ultimately it will be councils and the central Government talking about how to fund remediation works.

The aftershock sequences might be quieter and the slow quakes in progress under New Zealand might be relieving the faults of accumulated stress. However the geomorphological changes that are coming in the next few years and even decades will affect communities and individuals alike.

Death by a thousand cuts on West Coast

So, another mine is coming to the end of its working life on the West Coast.

No mine is ever permanent. They get built and provided the owner/operator does not have a major accident (Pike River) or there be a major economic slowdown (like right now)in the raw mineral sectors, they last as long as it takes to get the economically recoverable raw mineral being extracted, out of the ground.

But in a province where mines and the industry built up around them have played such an integral part of the economy, the death of so many mines is like death by a thousand cuts. A few people lost here and a few lost there. Small numbers most of the time, occasionally overshadowed by the loss of jobs that go with major redundancies at firms like Solid Energy. Over time the losses accumulate not just in the number of people being made redundant but also the loss of skills, knowledge and experience, which might have taken decades to get to the stage it was at when lost.

Given that the West Coast’s only other major industries in the past have been logging and tourism, this is not a minor issue. The native logging was brought to an end by the Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark in the early part of last decade, and the loss of yet more jobs with no obvious remedies on the horizon must be of significant concern to the West Coast.

Kiwi Rail’s wellbeing on the West Coast is a major concern. Mining and logging were major users of the railway to transport raw product out to Lyttelton for shipment to overseas markets. With few logs on the move and fewer bucket loads of processed coal coming down from the mines, how much longer can Kiwi Rail keep the Otira tunnel and associated line open? Will tourism via Arthurs Pass be enough, and what else could be transported by train? Given National’s preference for roads over rail the answers do not look promising.

I sympathize with West Coasters. It is an amazing province as natural beauty and tourism opportunities go. The people are awesome and laid back, but is this enough to stop the long term economic decline of New Zealand’s least populated province?

SpOILing New Zealand’s environmental image

When Labour came to office in 1999, I was pleased for here was a Government that was planning to take on climate change and try to do something about it. As the years passed and Labour messed around I grew wiser about the potential implications for New Zealand economically, as much from the perspective of the business community as from the environmental lobby. When they left office in 2008, not much had changed, though New Zealand had ratified the Kyoto Climate Protocol.

Enter the National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key. Whilst knowing that by their philosophical stance, National were likely to promote business development, I was initially quite encouraged by the line that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet originally adopted. It acknowledged climate change is an issue, but it also noted that even if New Zealand totally wiped its carbon emissions out, the annual growth of Chinese emissions would probably wipe any gains within a year or two. A somewhat pragmatic stance I thought. But with the election in 2011 any hope that common sense commentary might be followed with common sense policy was dashed, not least by the appointment of a man to the Energy and Resources portfolio whose contempt for the environment is not only aimed at degrading existing environmental policy, but those who try to defend it.

His name is Simon Bridges. He is the Member of Parliament for Tauranga, a senior member of the National Party and Minister for Energy and Resources, Minister for Transport as well Minister of Labour. He was elected to Tauranga following the resignation of Bob Clarkson.

Mr Bridges actually holds a pretty powerful combination of ministerial portfolio’s that have the potential to allow substantial long term improvements to how New Zealand functions economically if wielded properly. There is no doubt that the changes Mr Bridges is making using his portfolio’s are major. There is no doubt that they will have long term implications for country.

Unfortunately there is also increasingly little doubt that the changes being introduced by Mr Bridges are anything but constructive, that they have major environmental consequences attached. The Minister who has the power to make New Zealand’s energy use one of the cleanest in the world has all but stopped the development of green energy sources.

That same Minister has  proceeded to open up tracts of New Zealand seabed off the east coast of the South Island for exploration that are in a seismically volatile zone, with numerous SW-NE trending faults some of which have been historically active. Some of those zones also have marine ecosystems of international importance, with Sperm, Blue Whales and large seal colonies on the coast whose well being would be impacted by exploration activities. Mr Bridges also claims that there are “a lot of fish” around New Zealand and that no harm is being done by opening up the habitat of the critically endangered Maui dolphin whose total number in the world is less than the National Party caucus.

Mr Bridges has also proceeded to actively discourage peaceful protest at sea with the passage of the Crown Minerals (Crown land and permitting)Act 2013, which was roundly criticized by the Opposition, human rights groups and environmental groups. The law was passed under urgency with no public input, and would have permitted the Royal New Zealand Navy to be used as an arresting force on the high seas against peaceful protests. Whilst he claimed Anadarko had nothing to do with the so called Anadarko Amendment, the same Minister wined and dined executives from Anadarko and 10 other companies including Royal Dutch Shell during the Rugby World Cup 2011.

And that is why I accuse Mr Bridges in this blog of spOILing New Zealand’s environmental image.

The cost of “Drill baby drill!”

There is a mantra in the oil and natural gas industry that one must drill simply because it is good for the industry. It is best summed up in a defiant message from former Alaskan Governor and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin to the industry, “Drill baby, drill!!” Mrs Palin’s message might have been to obvious supporters, but it highlights fundamental problems with an oil obssessed economy. A problem that not only manifests in Alaska, but also elsewhere, including New Zealand.

The problem is cost.

Cost is more – much more – than just purely monetary figures. In this world monetary figures seem to matter much more than the cost to the ecosystem, which might now take decades to recover from a disaster. It is much more than simply having a smaller G.D.P. come the end of the financial year. The same ecosystem that supports “plenty of other fish in New Zealand waters” also supports a wealth of tourism, fishing, and other economic ventures intended to enable their operators to earn an income. It is also to educate people about the absolute importance of protecting the marine ecosystem. .

I accept that oil will never die as a source of energy. It is far too developed to do so even if the environmental brigade and the economic brigades somehow agreed to sheath the knives and look at ways together of reducing the impact on small businesses, the local environment and communities. Oil is essential for vehicles. Without  oil people doing very essential services such as transporting dirty linen from hospitals for cleaning as well as cleaning important facilities such as hospitals would not be able to do their job. Nor I imagine do we have large enough stocks of oil to realistically justify calling it a reserve.

But is it worth a Deep Horizon type oil spill or worse? Mr Bridges says that New Zealand has world class means to protect itself from an oil spill. He ignores the fact that in the United States, hundreds of vessels were needed to contain the Deep Horizon event, which went on for weeks and cost the Gulf of Mexico states billions. He also ignores the fact that there are only three – yes, 3 – oil spill craft in the country.  And how much training do the crews have for these ships? He further ignores the likelihood of a significant earthquake and/or tsunami event damaging coastal communities, damaging pipes and/or infrastructure.

Some of the proposed areas for drilling are atop very active seismic zones where the onshore Alpine Fault, which is considered to be locked by geologists. As the interface between the Pacific Plate and the Australian plate, it has numerous large faults branching off in north Canterbury and going into the sea not far from where these platforms would be sighted. Those same drilling projects would affect the sperm whales off the Kaikoura coastline, be a visual eye sore from the coast and harm the award winning Kaikoura whale watch operation.

Finally, how many Regional Coastal Plans has this ignored? Each Regional Council with a coastline is responsible for writing one, and I would expect them to be operative plans by now – i.e. legally binding. Did it also ignore the National Policy Statement on coasts? Without the legal weight of these plans who would enforce the rules?

So, if someone would mind tell me how this is supposed to be beneifcial to myself and New Zealanders, I would be keen to know.