Geothermal pioneer took on some big opponents

DOGGED: Alistair McLachlan contested bigger and better resources opponent.
Fairfax NZ
DOGGED: Alistair McLachlan contested bigger and better resources opponent.

Taupo geothermal pioneer Alistair McLachlan spent much of his life battling bureaucracy to see his dream of providing a cheap renewable energy source to generate electricity realised.

His travails became a modern- day David v Goliath struggle for nearly 30 years.

Friends and colleagues became familiar with his dogged stubbornness, relentless determination, and insistence of following his passion for geothermal power.

McLachlan died last week in Taupo, aged 71.

At his funeral at St Paul's Union Church on Saturday, 700 friends and family paid their last respects to the former Wairarapa farmer-turned-orchid grower and private geothermal power station owner.

Throughout his life, McLachlan contested bigger, and better- resourced, opponents, from the Environment Court through to the Privy Council.

In the late 1980s, he began to use geothermal energy on his 180-hectare Taupo sheep farm to grow roses and orchids for export.

The heat source created "artificial monsoon" conditions in which the flowers thrived.

After successfully suing the Crown for spraying 245T on his rose crop, he began to play with the idea of harnessing geothermal energy on his land for a privately owned power station.

Geothermal engineer and close friend Mike Glucina said McLachlan worked tirelessly to promote and protect the region's geothermal resources, and also encourage local iwi to set up their own power generation projects.

In 1988, consents, water rights, energy licences were awarded, and a contract signed with Mercury Energy to become a joint partner in the $78 million power 50-megawatt station on Poihipi Rd, 10 kilometres west of Taupo.

The deal included McLachlan providing farm land and Mercury contributing towards funding the development of the power station, which was imported from California, Glucina said.

It was the first privately owned geothermal power station in New Zealand when commissioned in 1997, and was able to produce power at a fraction of the cost of gas fired facilities.

"It was a geothermal industry milestone," Glucina said. "Alistair had great pride of what had been achieved, and deservedly so."

The project was shortlived. After a protracted High Court battle with Taupo iwi Ngati Rauhotu, in which McLachlan was awarded $700,000 costs after a dispute over water rights under the Resource Management Act, Mercury sold its generation interests, including the land, to Contact Energy for $50m.

In 2005, he sued Mercury's successor, Vector Networks, for $400m for breaching the joint venture contract.

The dispute was settled under a confidential agreement.

McLachlan began plans for a 60MW station on his remaining land but the farm was sold before the project was begun.

Contact Mike Watson
Taupo reporter

The Dominion Post