Treading softly

As desirable as renewable energy is, it can be hard to avoid putting down a large footprint when you build a new plant.

Meridian Energy knows this. Its approach to environmental management, it says, supports a licence to operate in some of New Zealand's most treasured landscapes.

Sustainability is an integral part of Meridian's business operations, says Guy Waipara, Meridian's general manager of external relations. "We generate from renewable resources, provide our customers with positive energy solutions, support our local communities, are careful stewards of our water catchments, and walk the talk by reducing our own impacts and emissions." 

The company offers two good examples - Project River Recovery, running for two decades in the Upper Waitaki Basin, and the recently completed Te Uku wind farm.

You only have to stand for a moment on the stones of a South Island braided river to know that you are in the midst of something remarkable and beautiful.

Braided rivers are rare ecosystems. In New Zealand they're not well understood and that puts them at risk. The black stilt, the wrybill, McCann's skin, native fish and insects, they're all here. But introduced species, habitat loss, agriculture and power schemes all imperil their habitat. Project River Recovery has been acting for the past two decades as the guardian of the Upper Waitaki Basin.

There's an extensive weed eradication program over 35,000 hectares of near pristine river habitat. A wetland has been constructed. There are education programs for school and university students.There's a trapping programme to catch all the predators - the hedgehogs, stoats, ferrets and feral cats.

There have been cheering successes. Banded dotterels, black front terns, and wrybills are all successfully hatching and rearing a greater number of young. A treasured landscape's prospects are lifting.

Meridian takes care to minimise the environmental impact of all their construction projects, Waipara says. "Careful environmental management is not only the right thing to do, it delivers real commercial benefits, including reduced operational costs, brand differentiation, and strong community support." 

Meanwhile in the North Island a wind farm has taken shape this year near Raglan. Te Uku wind farm is a project Meridian cites with pride as an example of best practice development.

It worked closely with local contractors, iwi and other members of the community to create as little environmental disruption as possible.

It was no easy job: Meridian needed to move more than 700,000m3 of fill, build 26 km of roads and deal with poor quality soils prone to erosion.

It drew on experience of developing wind farms around New Zealand and worked with its construction partners to find innovative solutions.

To prevent water runoff from the earthworks harming the five streams and two wetlands within the project site, Meridian created an extensive network of over 180 erosion and sediment controls. They also used new construction methods to reduce the volume of earthworks required.

The earthworks, Meridian says, were the biggest achievement from an environmental perspective. Not only was the company able to ensure that water quality in the streams and wetlands was preserved, but compliance levels meant it was granted special permission to continue work in challenging weather conditions, enabling it to meet project timeframes.

Meridian put a strong emphasis on local partnerships to achieve best practice environmental outcomes. This included working with Whaingaroa Harbour Care and Ngati Mahanga to plant 40,000 native plants on two wetlands within the wind farm site.

The plantings meant that they left the project site in better condition ecologically than it was before the construction of the wind farm.

As footprints go, this is how you tread lightly.