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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Mt Cass Wind Farm

Permission has just been denied for the construction of the Mt Cass Wind farm in N. Canterbury, New Zealand. After reading the report from the Wind Farm hearings, I have the strong impression of a wide consensus amongst a large number of highly qualified experts that the impact of the wind farm will be minimal. Moreover, with the proposed fencing, trapping of pests and a great reduction in grazing, it was considered highly likely that there would actually be an improvement in most areas of contention. Be that as it may, there are wider issues.

There is a body of opinion, supported by research, computer models and paleontology that we are close to causing a major, sudden climate shift. That is to say, a sudden change when we reach the threshold which initiates a number of run away positive feed backs (clathrate break down for instance). This opinion is held by the majority of the most prominent scientists in the world today, not the least of which is Jim Hansen, the chief climatologist at the Goddard Space Agency of NASA

And no, I don't think that our wind farm by itself will reverse climate change. However, I believe one should act as you would like others to act. I don't throw paper on the street, not because I think that my little piece of paper would make any difference but because if everyone did it we would be knee deep in garbage. I believe positive actions should be based on the same principle. If we give any credence to the climate change theory, then we very much hope that others will install wind farms to reduce our carbon foot print. We should play our part and not expect others to save us while we do nothing.

The threat of climate change has elements of what a rock climber would call exposure. The climb may be easy or hard but there is a huge drop below so the consequences of a fall are serious. If indeed a climate shift occurs, the consequences are serious indeed. Any flora or fauna that we think we are protecting on the Mt. Cass ridge will likely perish. That will be the least of our problems. The present agriculture of the Waipara Valley which is on the edge of wine grape tolerance, will collapse along with great swaths of the agriculture of the world. Yes we will learn what alternative crops to grow both locally and world wide but in the mean time millions will starve.

You may find it difficult to believe in the possibility of sudden climate change. You are not alone. A small but significant proportion of the scientists of the world are also climate change sceptics and they could be correct. Science is not a consensus process. What is right is right, and times without number in the past the minority has been correct so there is a possibility that the sceptics are correct and we won't experience a sudden dramatic, disasterous change in climate in the near future. However, there are other reasons for wind farms which are far more immediate, necessary for New Zealand and self evident

Our New Zealand Balance of Payments is catastrophic. We spend much more money than we earn as a country. The importation of energy in the form of liquid fossil fuel is a significant contributor to this sorry stare of affairs. President Obama has understood the implications of this problem for the USA and is acting accordingly. His aim is to make the USA independent of overseas energy. As a small country we are far more vulnerable than America. We have however a huge advantage over the Yanks. We already generate something like 50% of our energy from hydro and another 10% from geothermal. And.... we have very good wind resources If we develop them

Just as an aside with regard to our economy. Money itself has no value. It is an enabler. It is like the oil in a car. It does no good sitting in the sump. It only has value when it circulates. Money passes from hand to hand in one direction as services and good pass from hand to hand in the other direction. Money symbolizes the worth of the good or service given. When we send money overseas to purchase energy, it is like having a leaky sump gasket. Eventually enough oil leaks out and the engine seizes up. Similarly with money. Money, however, which is used to buy power from a local provider is used by them to purchase Kiwi goods and services and these providers in turn buy goods and services from other Kiwi Businesses. The money circulates and enables our economy. We need to buy our energy from a local producer rather than from an overseas oil giant. We need to get our economy into a positive balance of payments. To continue the analogy, we need to get New Zealand into a situation such that more oil is coming into the engine than is leaking out. For a home, business or country, the alternative is poverty.

There has been much controversy recently over why the price of our electrical power is increasing at such a rate. Logically, with our already paid for hydro installations with our geo-thermal power, our cost of electricity should be pretty stable. With our huge huge wind resources, our power costs should stabilize and even come down in real terms. We just have to develop them. Energy is a significant component of all manufacturing and agriculture and we are very dependent for our economic well-being on exports. Having a stable or decreasing energy cost component in our manufacturing and agricultural goods gives us a distinct advantage on world markets. If we are to survive in an ever more hostile, unstable world economy, we need every possible advantage.

Anyone watching the news over the past few years will be well aware that many many of our businesses have fled overseas to more favorable economic climates and to where labour is less expensive. The economic climate can be improved by our government if she has the will to do so. There is not much we can do about labour cost but consider this. In businesses in which few people are needed to produce goods and in which energy (to power machinery) is paramount, cheap labour becomes less of a factor in the bottom line. For all industries in this position, cheap energy will be the deciding factor in whether the business stays here or locates overseas.

And finally, practical electric cars are about to reach the market. At last count there were 9 serious car manufacturers about to put electrics or hybrids on the market. Note that such serious players as California and Israel are reticulating their areas with vehicle charging outlets and battery exchange stations in anticipation of this development. The development of the electric car helps us in two ways. First it reduces our energy imports, directly improving our balance of payments. Secondly, by playing our part in reducing the demand for liquid fossil fuels, it ensures that the price of fossil fuels will never rise again as it did last year. Simple supply and demand. Our trucks will never be able to convert to electricity and keeping the demand for oil low ensures that the liquid fuel that they run on is affordable and their businesses are viable.

One other consideration is applicable to the people of the Hurunui area. We own, in some sense, our electrical company, Main Power. Don't ask me to explain the details. I do not understand them. However, if they make a profit, you may have noticed a nice return on your electrical bill. At present Main power is a power distribution company but with a wind farm, they become a electricity generation company. Instead of putting out money to buy power which they sell us, they will be producing power for us and selling the surplus. There are no guarantees but I would suspect that our rebate might increase once we are generating power within the Hurunui.

In summary
A large number of our most able Kiwi experts have voiced the opinion that the ecological impact of the wind farm will be minimal and with measures which the Power company has committed to (offsets), could well be positive

If climate change does unfold as predicted by a wide range of the worlds most serious scientists, the implication for the world in general and New Zealand in particular will make the combined disasters of the first world war and subsequent flue epidemic pale in comparison. It may not happen. Some scientists are still sceptical about the predictions and they could be right. The consequences if they are wrong will be apocolyptic. Having our own in-house electric generation will go some way to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The economic effects on our disastrous Balance of Payments of replacing imported energy by home generated energy are too obvious to need further explanation

As electric cars come on line we must be generating the power to charge them from internally generated renewable sources. Charging our electric cars using imported fossil fuel largely defeats the benefits from this development.

There is a reasonable chance that we, in the Hurunui, will be paying less for our power if Main Power becomes a generator of electricity.