Ruling revives wind-farm plans

WINDY HEIGHTS: Meridian Energy's own photo mock-up of how some of the 176 turbines will look at its Project Hayes wind farm.
WINDY HEIGHTS: Meridian Energy's own photo mock-up of how some of the 176 turbines will look at its Project Hayes wind farm.

A South Island wind-power plan that could generate enough electricity for Christchurch and Dunedin has been revived.

Meridian Energy's proposed 176-turbine Project Hayes wind farm in Central Otago is back in the picture after the High Court allowed an appeal against a court ruling that overturned resource consents because of environmental effects on the unique landscape..

The state power company wanted the High Court to quash last November's Environment Court decision, but Justice Chisholm and Justice Fogarty decided yesterday that step was too unusual.

They determined Judge Jon Jackson in the Environment Court had wrongly applied parts of the Resource Management Act (RMA) to throw out consents for the wind farm, of up to 630 megawatts, that had been issued by the Central Otago District Council and the Otago Regional Council.

The High Court has instead set out specific directions for the Environment Court to reconsider the case, much of which hinged on alternative locations for a wind farm and a "test" that Meridian argued the Environment Court had developed which would require it and every other power company to prove projects were better than all alternatives.

Meridian chief executive Tim Lusk said last night the court decision was a "positive" result for the proposed wind farm on the Lammermoor Range northwest of Dunedin.

"We are really delighted and we will now be taking time to consider the report and its implications in the coming days," he said.

Central Otago opponents of the project were disappointed by the decision and hinted that there was only a faint chance of an appeal.

Landscape artist Grahame Sydney said the decision was "disappointing in the extreme".

"This is what Meridian always declared they would do – they would just keep spending money until they got their way. We haven't got any money," he said.

"This is in no way a consent being given. That was never in the High Court's power."

Poet Brian Turner said Meridian was continuing to use taxpayers' money "to batter us".

"They exhaust the life out of us – emotionally, intellectually and financially. It's like a war of attrition," he said.

"We have heard Meridian will go on to the bitter end."

Save Central co-ordinator Graye Shattky said the group, which appealed against the original consents to the Environment Court, needed to study the judgment before deciding whether to take it to the Court of Appeal.

If Project Hayes goes ahead it will be the first major South Island power station built since Contact Energy's 432MW Clyde Dam on the Clutha River in the 1980s.

New Zealand Wind Energy Association chief executive Fraser Clark said the High Court judgment sent a signal to all sectors involved in national infrastructure.

"It will certainly be received positively," he said.

"We are managing this winter well, but it was only a couple of years ago we were in a totally different situation and bringing higher-cost power from the North Island to the South Island."

The High Court hearing was held in Dunedin in June.

In the judgment, Justices Chisholm and Fogarty said they were "troubled" by the wider implications of the Environment Court's approach and that the "reasonable" alternatives the court was expecting would not be restricted to the Central Otago council's district.

"We do not think that Parliament intended that applicants could be called upon to describe alternative sites beyond the relevant district," they said.

"For a company like Meridian seeking a major wind-farm site in the South Island – because the bulk of its customers are located in that island – a comparison of alternative sites in the North Island would be largely meaningless."

The Environment Court was wrong to apply part of the RMA as requiring "explicit and comprehensive" cost-benefit analyses for alternative locations, the judgment said.

The High Court directed the Environment Court give Meridian "reasonable opportunity" to present more evidence on the matter of alternative locations within the district and allow respondents the chance to reply.

The Press