Whispering wind #2

By Bryan Walker 12/03/2011

The arrival of a Wind Energy Association Newsletter suggested it might be time for an update on wind power in New Zealand. It’s nearly two years since I wrote about wind farm prospects in my own Waikato region. The first of those wind farms, at Te Uku, is now up and running. The Prime Minister was present at the opening on 11 February, and is reported by the wind energy association as saying ’In a world where we want to get away from fossil fuels and ultimately have a cleaner, greener environment, wind is a tremendous technology for us.’

The newspaper report, however, failed to report that remark and focused on his use of the occasion to defend the Government’s wish to privatise up to 49% of Meridian Energy. It also reported him as saying that new technology and generation such as Te Uku would only be introduced ’when it pays for itself’. One would like to think that at this point he pointed out that fossil fuel-generated electricity doesn’t pay for itself but is heavily subsidised by future generations, but if he did the paper didn’t think it newsworthy.

Te Uku was a challenging construction effort on steep terrain, with the building of 26 kilometres of roads to transport the turbines to their foundations. The local economy benefited through direct employment and the engagement of local services, some of which will no doubt continue throughout the farm’s life. Seen from the road to Raglan the turbines are a clear feature of the landscape, and to my eyes visually pleasing — certainly more so than many of the human constructions bordering that road.

The considerably larger wind farm proposed for the coast further north from Raglan, Hauauru ma Raki, ran into problems in the early stages of its seeking consent, as reported by us here. But happily the Board of Enquiry has recently announced its draft decision to grant resource consents for 168 wind turbines and designation for the transmission lines. Confirmation of that draft decision will open the way for a very substantial addition to New Zealand’s wind power resource if Contact Energy proceeds with its development. The decision was a good deal more favourable than that announced recently by the Board responsible for consent for the proposed farm at Turitea, near Palmerston North, where a proposal for 104 turbines has been scaled back to 61, impacting adversely on the economics of the project.

Te Uku is just one of four wind farms currently being built. When all four projects are complete New Zealand’s wind capacity will sit at 623MW, and supply around 5% of our electricity.

The activity at the four sites represents over $300 million of investment, which creates opportunities for local businesses and communities. These opportunities are not only associated with the initial construction of the farms. The newsletter points to ongoing economic benefits.  An example is the three Manawatu wind farms whose ongoing operation is estimated to inject $8 to $11 million into the Manawatu economy each year.

Locally based companies like Ashhurst Engineering and Construction have been able to expand their operations as a result of opportunities at these wind farms. AEC’s work in and around wind farms has taken them all over the world. They have built specialist equipment for use at wind farms and offer innovative solutions to new challenges.

The Association website provides five case studies of what a wind farm development can mean for the surrounding community and the electricity system.

The newsletter carries some interesting information on wind farm noise. A recently commissioned report shows that infrasound levels measured at two Australian wind farms were well below established perception thresholds and also below levels produced by other natural and man-made sources, including a beach. This supported existing overseas data. More generally a report commissioned by the Australian Clean Energy Council showed that the NZ Wind Farm Noise Standard, (used both in Australia and New Zealand) is among the toughest and most up-to-date of the guidelines used for controlling wind farm noise in the world.

Global wind capacity increased by 22% in 2010, and for the first time more than half all new wind power was added outside of traditional markets in Europe and North America, mainly in China. How far can wind go in supplying electricity demand? The Global Wind Energy Outlook considers that by 2030, at 2300 gigawatts capacity, it could be providing 22% of the world’s needs. The NZ Association considers a similar level possible for New Zealand. This is considerably less than the global level visualised by Lester Brown in his recent book World on the Edge, where he writes of 4000 gigawatts capacity by 2020, but he advocates a crash programme to meet it.

On an encouraging note the newsletter reported the cost of wind turbines in NZ terms had fallen significantly in the past couple of years by some 15 to 20%.

I mentioned briefly in the past the possibility of wind energy in New Zealand playing an important part in the electrification of our car fleet. Bruce Smith, director of modelling and forecasting at the Electricity Commission, was reported as telling the 2009 biofuels and electric vehicles conference in Wellington that electric vehicles have the ability to smooth the peaks and troughs of electricity supply so efficiently they could triple the country’s capacity to use wind power. Electric cars could make it possible to build many more wind turbines because they solved one of wind power’s major inefficiencies – that energy is wasted overnight and at other times when people use little electricity because the wind is blowing and not being used. It’s a scenario which is not infrequently canvassed in writings about vehicle electrification and renewable energy and one which would seem to have particular relevance to New Zealand, perhaps indicating a fuller use of wind energy than might otherwise be contemplated.

The New Zealand Wind Energy Association has a conference and exhibition coming up in April in the Wellington Town Hall.