Caution needed over wind direction
TO: Energy and environment reporters
FROM: Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment
Caution needed over wind direction
Wind power is a great form of renewable energy and a key part of a sustainable energy future for New Zealand, but we need to address tensions about how the resource is being developed, says Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Morgan Williams.
“The model of big wind farms isn’t the only one,” he says. “Most wind farms are on the same large scale we developed hydro in the 1960s and gas and coal in the 1980s. But we should also be thinking about ways of encouraging more distributed, smaller-scale wind farms and broadening the forms of ownership, including ownership by local communities.”
Dr Williams was speaking about Wind power, people, and place, a PCE report tabled today in Parliament. The report provides an extensive overview of wind power – existing wind farms in New Zealand and the potential for growth, international experience of wind power, wind power and sustainable energy, its impact on landscapes and local communities, case studies from Auckland, Wellington and Manawatu, and legal and planning frameworks. It includes the results of interviews with 54 stakeholders and interested parties, and contains 11 recommendations to Government.
Given the growing number of proposals for wind farms around New Zealand, Dr Williams believes that a more strategic approach is needed on where to locate them. In particular, central government needs to give stronger guidance so that local authorities can actively plan for and consider wind farm proposals. That would help reduce the tensions that are emerging, he says, and avoid piecemeal growth while protecting the landscapes New Zealanders are passionate about.
“Wind power is very important to the future proofing of our energy system as we head into a turbulent time with climate change,” says Dr Williams, “but we need to do it in ways that meet more than just our energy needs.”
Wind power, people, and place: Summary of key findings
Wind energy is a plentiful renewable resource that can be harnessed without harming ecosystems. Using wind power instead of fossil fuels reduces greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on non-renewable energy. To improve the sustainability of the electricity system, we need a long-term strategy that increases the proportion of renewable energy sources (including wind power) and improves energy efficiency.
Wind farms will only ever occupy a very small proportion of New Zealand’s landscapes. Wind farms can also have positive impacts. Even if high growth predictions for wind power eventuate over the next 10 years, wind farms will not dominate New Zealand’s landscape, meaning impacts nationally will be very minor. Wind farms can be seen as positive elements in the landscape because of their sculptural qualities, and because they are seen to symbolise clean, green energy.
The location of the best wind resources and the push for large-scale wind farms is causing localised impacts on particular valued landscapes and communities. Wind farms are being proposed and built in outstanding natural landscapes, areas of moderate-to-high natural character on the coast, and near to residences. Other factors leading to significant localised adverse effects are the trends towards larger wind farms (both in size and number of turbines) and clustering of wind farms.
Consultation early in a project and meaningful efforts to address community concerns are a vital part of developing wind power. Maintaining and increasing support for renewable energy, including wind power, is a key aspect of a sustainable energy future. Evidence of growing local community opposition to recent proposals is a concern, despite the general public’s strong support for wind power.
A strategic framework is needed to address location, scale, distribution, and ownership of wind farms, and to give robust consideration to alternatives through specific policy, plans, and guidance. A case-by-case approach to decision making to date has been reasonably robust. However, trade-offs are more likely to occur under a case-by-case approach. To ensure positive outcomes for wind power, landscapes and communities, stronger leadership from central government and regional councils is needed on the way wind power is growing. A range of measures will be needed to achieve this leadership.
Robust national criteria are needed for assessing landscapes, and regional councils should lead landscape management. We need to address the ways landscapes are managed in New Zealand. There is evidence of inconsistency and lack of clarity about how landscapes are managed between regions and districts.
We can learn from other countries’ approaches to wind farm development. Smaller-scale, dispersed wind turbines and farms, and community ownership of smaller, commercial wind farms, have proved successful in other countries. Overseas approaches have increased community acceptance, reduced impacts on valued landscapes, distributed benefits and impacts more evenly, and involved communities in sustainable energy projects. Central government should lead in investigating how these approaches could benefit New Zealand.