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No Right Turn: Greens Damn Dams

Greens Damn Dams

There was a minor kerfuffle last week in response to the release of the Ministry of Economic Development's report Identification of Potential Hydroelectric Resources. The Greens claimed that his meant that a dam was "coming to a river near you", but I have to agree with the government in thinking that they're jumping at shadows.

An earlier report on Power generation Options for New Zealand noted that:

New Zealand has at least 1000MW - and possibly 2000MW - of additional hydropower capacity, which may be economic and has limited environmental impact. The most recent studies were done 15-20 years ago. To determine the order in which schemes should proceed - and those that should be ruled out - a comprehensive study of hydro resources is needed. This study would review existing reports and, where necessary, revise them in the light of the latest information, and using modern technology in civil works and mechanical and electrical generating plant. It also needs to carry out more detailed studies of schemes that have been proposed but not investigated in sufficient detail to provide reliable cost estimates.

The report released last week appears to be the first stage in this process - a review of existing reports. As such, Fish and Game's criticism that it "uses very old information" and "reads likes a once over lightly review of hydro potential where they have cobbled together some old material" is perfectly accurate. It's a list of ideas that people have had over the years, not a serious plan for energy development.

Some of those ideas are simply crazy - Project Aqua, for example - and others have been overtaken by events (the Ruapehu diversion schemes would likely fall foul of the same court judgement that limited the Tongariro schemes water rights). Others are saner. But their mere inclusion in the report doesn't indicate that they're going to happen. As the government says, the report simply identifies potential - and in a broad sense at that, judging that "where there is flow and 'head' there is an opportunity". While it identifies some sites in National Parks and the Conservation Estate or which are subject to water conservation orders, these are generally listed as "prohibited", meaning that they're almost certainly not going to happen without legislative change. The notable exception to this is the Dobson scheme; either the report's authors are betting on a change of government, or they've simply uncritically bought Trustpower's bullshit that there is no problem whatsoever with wantonly destroying part of the Conservation Estate for commercial gain.

In any case, the fact there is potential, or that a project is technologically feasible does not mean that it will be pursued - the fact that so many of these plans have sat on the shelf for twenty years or more shows that. The Greens are very definitely overreacting. But worse, they're adopting a fundamentalist anti-development position that runs counter to their core principles. A green energy policy must be centred around environmental sustainability; energy conservation is a key part of this, but it also requires shifting to an environmentally sustainable mix of generation technologies. Hydro is a key part of this mix. So is wind, but while it has enormous potential, it won't get us the whole way. If we want to get a green mix of energy technologies and substantially reduce burning fossil fuels for electricity, we need to build more dams.

This does not mean that we should pursue hydro without thought. Canal diversion schemes which run a river dry are destructive. Schemes which do not include storage capacity are missing the point. And we absolutely should not be pursuing ecologically damaging development in our National Parks or other areas of our Conservation Estate. Outside of those redlines, there's a wide range of hydro projects which should be possible. If we really want to be "clean and green", we should be pursuing and promoting those options, not rejecting them outright.


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