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May 10, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Brave renewable world

Sometimes we think we’re pretty great, here in New Zealand. There’s a smorgasbord of different reasons: our felicitous menu includes beaches, Bret and Jemaine, biodiversity, and also, apparently, our energy production methods.

For a long time now, New Zealand has boasted of an extremely high rate of ‘renewable’ energy. While the UK, France and the US primarily rely on thermal power (from fossil fuels) and, increasingly, nuclear energy, Aotearoa has had the enviable status of being renewably righteous for a while now.

Or have we? Renewable electricity generation in Aotearoa has been dropping for decades. In the 1950s we were completely powered by hydro, but by 2007 levels had stooped to about 55 per cent—in the same year Helen Clark announced a national target of 90 per cent renewable electricity by 2050. This, unsurprisingly, is not on track, with thermal power stations increasingly supplying our growing energy needs.

What’s really interesting is the question of ‘renewable’ renewable energy. Here, in the land of the long white cloud, we have been brought up with wind power and hydropower. They bring our kettles to the boil and our electric blankets to a sufficient level of toastiness. Renewable energy (and nuclear in other, more populous, less elongated countries) is touted as one of the means to save the world from imminent climate-change-caused destruction.

While it is so incredibly important that we stop using fossil fuels, some forms of ‘renewable’ energy aren’t that awesome. Large-scale scale hydropower has been a serious source of altercation, with an international history of resistance surrounding it. Maybe hydro is super in terms of greenhouse emissions, but it also has other effects.

The Narmada dams in India are one of the most high-profile cases of resistance to large hydro. This ongoing ‘development’ project kicked off in 1979, comprising of plans for 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams. The Save Narmada Movement sprang to life in the 80s, garnering support from the likes of activist/novelist (and girl-crush) Arundhati Roy. Protestors’ qualms centred not only on the environmental impacts of the large dams, but also on the displacement of millions, particularly indigenous tribal people.

Outcomes of the movement include failed court battles and a significant victory when the World Bank removed itself from the picture.

Here in Aotearoa there has also been a history of resistance. From 1959 to 1972 the Save Manapouri campaign successfully fought against raising the level of Lake Manapouri. During this campaign an impressive (almost) 10 per cent of the New Zealand population signed a petition relating to the project in 1970.

At the moment there’s some discussion going on about a $300 million dam on the Mokihinui River. The Mokihinui is situated just north of Westport and is a tangible example of our bordering on mythical ‘100% Pure New Zealand’.

The Department of Conservation has called for Meridian Energy’s resource consent to be overturned on building this 80-metre-high 300-metre-wide dam. They say the dam and associated infrastructure would have serious effects on the river and native wildlife. The Mokihinui is also said to have significance for local iwi, although a sub-tribe of Ngai Tahu now supports the project after a cultural fund was set up for them by Meridian.

Although not as glaringly sinister as the spectre of mining on conservation land, building large dams like this has similarly serious environmental impacts. It’s just that the sympathetic wrapper of ‘renewable energy’ takes away the sting.

On the flip-side, proponents argue that we need the Mokihinui Dam to meet New Zealand’s energy needs, and that opposition to hydro schemes has led to increased resource consent approval for coal and gas-fired thermal stations, ominously increasing our greenhouse gas emissions.

While no expert, I think that this is an over-simplification. Rather than pitting destructive mega-hydro against carbon-spewing coal-stations in a dog-fight to the death, instead we could choose decentralised renewables and a decrease in energy consumption. And, in Aotearoa’s current climate-wrought climate, we want to do just that. Let’s give power to the people, eh.


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  1. rougerogue says:

    So, this is supposedly an article promoting renewable energy. Yet you only devote half a sentence to actually finding solutions to increasing energy need.

    Just like all the other idealists, you tear down other people’s suggestions without finding solutions of your own.

  2. Liz W-M says:

    Thanks for the feedback, rouguerouge. Retrospectively, I agree that I should have spent much more space on solutions in this column.

    I wanted to focus on the Mokihinui, but yes, I should have included information on hydro / wind / wave / solar / increasing energy efficiency / energy demand.

    I have taken the first half of your comment on board, but politely disagree in regards to the second half. Incomplete articulation in one column does not define me, and it certainly does not define all those “other idealists”.


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