Overhauling New Zealand’s energy supply

New Zealand is a country blessed with superb opportunities for renewable energy. It is also a nation that has substantial fossil fuel deposits of coal and oil as well as natural gas. The last 100 years since Reefton became the first town in New Zealand to have electricity from a local hydro-electric power scheme have seen a vast expansion for a nation of 270,000 square kilometres and 4 million people in its electricity production and usage. But with that vast expansion come serious questions about where to from here, which I believe have not been adequately answered or even considered – answers forthcoming or not.

With growing concerns about the state of the global climate, and also the environment at large, the time has long since arrived for New Zealand to acknowledge that our opportunities for large scale generation in our traditional fields are finished. All the rivers we can reasonably dam have been dammed, diverted or otherwise altered for some time now. The remainder need to be preserved for the enjoyment of New Zealanders and other uses. There is a limit approaching whereupon it will not be sustainable to build new geothermal power stations lest the highly sensitive systems underground become unstable or otherwise not able to meet the expectations placed on them. Although coal has substantial untapped reserves left in New Zealand, its links to climate change, the ecological and environmental damage caused by mining, mean that its days are numbered. This is especially so since the one power station reliant on coal on a large scale is mothballing its two coal fired units by the end of 2018.

This may sound highly negative, but New Zealand is a country whose economy is heavily reliant on it maintaining a clean and healthy environment. New Zealand is a nation committed to environmental sustainability through several legal frameworks, both of an international nature and the Resource Management Act 1991. We have a commitment to have 90% of our electricity coming from renewable sources by 2025.

But there are also huge opportunities, which come with their own challenges, but which the extent of will not be known unless we explore them. One such opportunity is tidal power, which could potentially supply up to 8,000 megawatts (at the moment our generation capacity is about 9,000 megawatts), and could be generated from Kaipara Harbour heads and Cook Strait where there are strong sustained tidal flows. Another is solar energy, something New Zealand has considerable generation potential for in high sunlight areas such as Blenheim, Whakatane and possibly in the Mackenzie Basin of the South Island.

There are also unknown ones with possibly huge potential, such as biofuel and fusion. We don’t know much about either as a nation, but that is not to say we should not investigate.

New Zealand however needs to change the legislative framework for electricty generation as it lacks a long term blue print to abide by. Although a National Energy Policy Statement is not compulsory it would give policy and environmental planners something to work with in planning regional electricity needs by having an umbrella statement to look at. Also the framework in what form it may be for the maintenance of the electricity grid should be revisited. No Government has done this in the last decade and every now and again there are contentious cases where plans to build extensions to the grid have come unstuck because of a lack of a long term blue print.

The opportunities are there, and so are the challenges. Are we going to rise to the occasion as a nation or blow the opportunity to plan for the foreseeable future?

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