Wind farm fate still up in the air

GRANT MILLER ON POLITICS
Last updated 12:00 12/09/2011

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One of the ironies from the Government's Turitea Wind Farm inquiry is that its final result brings us no closer to knowing whether the project will go ahead.

OPINION: The saga has already dragged on for years and Mighty River Power is still probably years away from pushing the go button.

Or not pushing it.

We're in the hands of "market conditions".

If market conditions remain roughly the same as now for the next 10 years it seems the planned wind farm near Palmerston North will not be built.

More likely, wind farms will become more viable during that decade, but it remains to be seen if the market signals will be clear enough for the state-owned enterprise to commit to construction.

Sixty wind turbines is, of course, nowhere near the number Mighty River Power was hoping to get approved. When the board of inquiry's draft decision came out in February, the power company refused to give the slightest indication of whether it was happy or sad about the result.

But the fact it later tried to squeeze in an extra 12 turbines at the eleventh hour rather spoke for itself.

That was a tactic with almost no prospect of success, but Mighty River tried it on anyway.

With the board's final decision substantially the same as the draft, the company is no longer bothering to hide its disappointment.

Probably the aspect of the decision it is most pleased about is the 10-year window for making up its mind on whether to proceed.

Of course, another irony from the inquiry is that a process favoured by the Government to produce a faster result than usual did nothing of the sort.

Environment Minister Nick Smith decided the project was a matter of national importance way back in December 2008, and took the decision out of local hands.

The hearing started in July 2009. It did not end until March the next year, mainly because the power company decided to redesign the scheme.

Then it took the board nearly a year to produce a draft decision.

It appears the Government's enthusiasm for the board of inquiry process has waned a little.

It's interesting to note that a recent proposal by Genesis Energy for up to 286 wind turbines east of Pahiatua has not been declared a matter of national importance.

Yet it could easily meet the criteria.

Meanwhile, Mighty River Power seems destined to enter the wind game at some stage.

It has lodged an application for resource consent to build a 53-turbine wind farm on the Puketoi Range south of Dannevirke.

It would be next to the planned Waitahora wind farm that Contact Energy has not yet progressed because of viability doubts.

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Mighty River's Turitea project was fraught with problems – not the least of them was the idea of having such a big wind farm near a city.

The company was also clearly hampered by a lack of enthusiasm from Palmerston North City Council – the proposed farm's anchor tenant.

The council's conduct throughout the entire business was a bit strange.

Under Paul Wylie's leadership as chief executive in 2004, the council first sought a partner to develop a wind farm and selected Mighty River Power. It changed the purpose of a reserve to enable renewable electricity to be generated there.

It then effectively became an opponent of Mighty River Power's plans, though it could not say so aloud. Technically, the council was neutral – at least that's what some councillors believed their organisation's position to be.

The council then spent weeks and hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect the interests of city residents from the excessive effects of a scheme it initiated. Apparently, it wanted to make sure there was a robust decision-making process.

It just so happened that all the expert advice it presented to the hearing was more negative about the project than the expert advice assembled by Mighty River Power.

It is to be hoped that the company has learned something from all of this.

For starters, it gained nothing from putting up an audacious proposal likely to make its major partner uncomfortable.

It seemed desperate to do anything it could to get the biggest wind farm possible.

The board saw through the project's problems and limited the scheme to one that would not drastically change the environment.

Whatever happens in the next few years, Palmerston North has been saved from a scheme that would have been clearly unsuitable.

Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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