Would-be wind farmer Meridian Energy has a problem, its opponents have a point, and there’s an unanswered question that challenges us all

Five kilometers west of Martinborough, I’m sitting in my car, looking across the valley at Nga Waka o Kupe — Kupe’s Canoes.

Both my back and front yards are a mite less salubrious than Deborah Coddington’s. But I’m not a far distant neighbour.

Meridian wants to put 45 windmills on the hills by Coddington’s vineyard home, on the north side of Martinborough. There is, as yet, no resource consent application, but Meridian’s early scoping work has local environmental lobby group Pure Martinborough up in arms. They have vowed to “fight it through every court in the land”; meanwhile, Deborah’s using her media clout.

She’s in stellar company. Asked by The Nation if he was a ‘nimby’, Project Hayes objector Grahame Sydney was unabashed about it, as is Coddington herself. Of course I am, he said, we all should be. Environmental responsibility starts in our own back yards; if we don’t stand up to protect them, no one else is going to.

Down in Martinborough this morning. I knew roughly where the canoes would be, and what I was looking for; still, I drove about hunting for them through the town and round its outskirts for a solid half hour with this phrase of Deborah’s in my head: “they object to the size, proximity to town, and the ridge chosen, which is clearly visible from nearly everywhere in and around Martinborough ”.

Finally, feeling mighty sheepish, I turned into the information centre, where I enjoyed an interesting exchange:

Er … I was wanting to find the Kupe’s Canoes. Can you tell me which hills they are?
Ooh, I don’t know, said the first woman on the desk. And, turning to the other: Can you see them from round here?
I’ve actually tried that myself, said the second, and I can’t find
them …

We agreed I might have more luck if I backtracked, to higher ground — so here I am, and there they are.

On the skyline, just to the right of the third canoe, Genesis’ seven little Hau Nui mills are spinning. In fact, Hau Nui is 21 kilometers out of town, but from this vantage point, it’s all part of the same vista. Immediately to the left of the first canoe is Meridian’s preferred site: not on the canoes, not in front of them, but the low rumpled hills next door.

Pure Martinborough isn’t opposed to Wairarapa wind farming, they just want it somewhere else. My first response to this was succinct. Martinborough’s character and environment face bigger threats than a few windmills, but I doubt they’re denying that either, with a Copenhagen negotiator on board.

They cite the construction inconvenience, from trucking stuff through the sleepy village. Nga Waka o Kupe is an iconic brand for several local winemakers; not surprisingly though, that’s getting less push in the debate than the underlying Maori legend and history. South Wairarapa mayor Adrienne Staples is backing the objections, on the record as saying she doesn’t think this ridge is an appropriate place for a wind farm, being too close to town, and part of the fabric of the town.

And above all I agree with Pure Martinborough, we should always ask the question, and test it loud and long: do we need to sacrifice this landscape to this purpose? Are there better ways of doing it?

But it is not a view shared by all locals. A UMR telephone survey commissioned by Meridian showed 25% ‘strongly opposed’ to the wind farm, 30% ‘somewhat opposed but wanting more information’, 9% ‘in favour’, 33% ‘somewhat supportive but wanting more information’. The campaigners say the questions were biased.

I’d better declare myself: I’ve never seen a skyline I didn’t feel was dignified and improved by windmills. If I could get consent and a lot of money, I would have one (not 45) in my back yard. I bet I know what some of those drivers were doing, snapped the other week failing to keep left in the Woodville gorge: they were in thrall of the gorgeous nonchalant Te Apiti giants, that loom over the cliffs.

But watching Kupe’s Canoes, as they pass in and out of nor’west squalls today, I think: this is not the most spectacular skyline in the world, or the most picturesque Wairarapa destination, but these flat brown hills have a quiet mana about them. No, I would not want to see these violated. There will be other spots for wind farming, in this mistral-type climate where gales rattle your back fillings loose.

And yet, I remain about where I was before: an unsurveyed ‘somewhat supportive but wanting more information’, about why, exactly, it would be culturally so egregious to use the neighbouring hills proposed (not the canoes), and the viability (or not) of other locations.

Embattled Meridian, perennially cast as bully and despoiler, is going quietly, saying they’ve put the work on hold, pending a public consultation exercise on what landscapes make Wairarapa special, and how they should be recognised and managed. They scored a small savvy PR point on the future of the iconic, much-loved, Brooklyn turbine, which Wellingtonians stood up to defend, and which will be repaired. But you get the feeling on this one, Pure Martinborough is going to win.

Meridian faces the same challenge wherever it goes these days — Project Aqua, Project Hayes, Mokihinui, Makara West Wind, Martinborough. Renewable energy isn’t always cost-effective, that’s highly circumstance-dependent, and it’s never cost-free. In all its forms, it affects a non-renewable piece of the environment: a tidal sea bed, a river valley, a skyline. Unless our insatiable energy demand is also changed, or managed, a simple switch to renewable sources will end up no more sustainable than the other kind.

And that’s the challenge for all of us, who oppose this kind of development, for whatever reason, wherever it may be: if we don’t want to wear that environmental cost, what other trade offs will we make instead?

Writing in the Listener, Coddington points to James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory and a father of the green movement, who opposes large scale industrial wind farming. Yes, he does. He supports nuclear power, instead, and his opposition to “great industrial wind turbines” crystallised, it seems, in defence of his own Westcountry back yard.

Comments (5)

by william blake on June 16, 2010
william blake

I remember many summers ago driving through the Waiarapa looking for camping sites. It was an especially dry summer and all of the creeks were dry and the grass was scorched ochre. After some time we spotted a cloud, the only one the whole day, it was floating over a small rectangle of bush on the slopes of the Tararua Range, it seemed as sad and lonely as the trees.

Like the Lammamore down South there is an odd nationalistic sense that dry grassy slopes are somehow sacrosanct. All I see are farms, and in todays terms some farms are just well run milk and meat factories.

These folk arent just NIMBY's they are romantics seeing the sublime landscape of their ancestors but those ancestors didn't get to New Zealand and say "phwoar this is a bit good let's leave it the way it is", they chopped and burnt for all it was worth. Why has this spirit left the descendants? There is good clean power to be had.

Would the residents of Martinborough welcome a nuclear cooling tower to their town? Indeed would they prefer their light to come from whale oil?

I would welcome windmills any time

 

by Claire Browning on June 17, 2010
Claire Browning

Yes. I'm looking forward to the news of Pure Martinborough's next, post-Meridian, challenge: to spend some more of those dollars taking the whole town off the grid, thus proving the point that ruinous large-scale industrial generation is totally unnecessary.

But I'm not holding my breath.

To be fair, Deborah Coddington has written a few pieces on this, and in them she presents a range of arguments that I lacked space to deal with in detail in the post. It's not just about sacrosanct "dry grassy slopes" as such: she argues that Kupe's Canoes are wahi tapu; and that wind power is not viable.

However, they don't bear very close scrutiny.

by william blake on June 17, 2010
william blake

Viability is a curious concept when applied to physics.

I met some old friends who live just outside of Fielding , they live slap in front of the big  Manawatu wind farm. They were anecdotal experts on the mills. The recieved wisdom is that the first wind generators cost $1m. each and were expected to generate $2m. worth of electricity over their lifetime.

I am surprised that Deborah Coddington is claiming wahi tapu for her back yard; I suspect her claim to this isn't 'viable'.

by Deborah Coddington on June 18, 2010
Deborah Coddington

Have you read the facts? I'm not "claiming" wahi tapu for "my" back yard. Published historian Roberta McIntyre (The Canoes of Kupe. A History of Martinborough district Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2002) is who I have quoted in the story. And why does the argument have to be polarised? As I state in the article, we're not opposed to wind farms per se, there is one 21 kilometres away, which I can see from my kitchen window, and just because we oppose this one, 7 kilometres from the town centre, does not mean ipso facto we welcome a nuclear power plant, or in principle should take our whole town off the grid and use tallow. That is just silly.

I also don't argue that wind power "is not viable". I just present an alternative argument using evidence from European research showing that wind power may not be the green, planet saving miracle it has heretofore been cracked up to be.

The bigger argument, surely, is that the government must come up with a national plan, rather than have this ad hoc system whereby power companies sneak up on communities, whether it be with wind farms or flooding valleys of native bush, and we waste millions of dollars on legal fees fighting battles in court. In California they finally got it. The power companies start off with consultation - ie, they say, we want to build an energy plant, where's the best place to start? And they go from there.

And by the way, it's Nga Waka a Kupe. Perhaps that's why you had trouble finding them. If you'd knocked on my door, I would have willingly shown you the mast, right on the third waka, where the first turbine will be placed. We think they are too beautiful for this. If you want wind farms around you William, you are welcome, but we have a right to object, just as Wellington people have a right to object to Hiltons.

by Claire Browning on June 20, 2010
Claire Browning

 

I guess we can call it one all, on the mistakes of fact then, Deborah. You’re right: most of the local sources refer to Nga Waka a Kupe. There are also lots of others, mistakenly or otherwise, who’ve used an ‘o’.

And no, the argument needn’t be polarised. Believe me, a polarised post would have looked quite different. I went to some lengths, in the circumstances, to try to keep it amicable.

But for someone advocating rational consensus-building, your technique is ... interesting. Yes, it would have been a bit silly to suggest that, ipso facto, you’d welcome nuclear power, or that Martinborough should burn tallow. Gosh, I’m glad now I didn’t do either.

I never said you were claiming wahi tapu for your own, literal, backyard, but if not claiming it or similar for the canoes, I’m not sure what the argument is. Forgive me for assuming that, in quoting Roberta McIntyre, and putting so much focus on the history and cultural significance of the canoes, you were adopting that. You did rather a good job of throwing the kitchen sink at it, so I’m sure you’re right: my brief attempt to summarise didn’t capture all of the subtleties.

And, a bit like assuming the view from your own windows is shared by the whole of the rest of Martinborough, it’s not immediately apparent to the rest of us which one among the vineyards is Coddington-Carruthers’, for door-knocking purposes.

On power companies sneaking up on communities -- I’m sorry, but I thought starting off with consultation was precisely what Meridian had been doing. In early October, this Meridian release signals its intention to start consulting with the community in coming weeks. There was a (Pure Martinborough initiated?) public meeting in the Martinborough town hall later the same month. Subsequently you and others were invited to lunch with Meridian and a further discussion; the bon mots got trotted out happily in the Listener, though apparently the lunch part was declined. There was the UMR survey. The project’s now on hold, pending Greater Wellington’s landscape study, another public review.

I realise Pure Martinborough probably takes sole credit for initiating this engagement, and challenges the veracity of some of it; however, it does seem to be having its say at some length and volume, without wasting millions of dollars fighting court battles, which of course would only be in issue if Meridian clears the resource consent hurdle.

By contrast, no one can accuse you of sneaking around, but I’m not sure this barrage of accusations via mainstream media is a model of non-confrontation, either.

Nobody that I know of is suggesting wind power alone is the world’s green magic bullet: it’s about the mix, and its cost-effectiveness varies per location, which is why I don't find seizing on European analogies that helpful. Here’s a fact for you: according to the Wind Energy Association, a record 3.7% of our electricity was generated from wind last year; the aspiration is 20%.

Arguably, that’s not much benefit for an already big imposition -- though as I made clear in the post, that's not my own view. What it also does, is illustrate the bigger composite picture that was the subject of the post: how far we still have to go in fixing our energy dependence, and what we will do instead, if wind, hydro, etc, are unacceptable to, collectively, pretty much everybody everywhere.

I daresay every objector to every proposed project considers it an outrage. Each of the projects, including this one, might well be. But where the principal interest of objectors seems to boil down largely to narrowly-focused self interest (however they may dress it up), I am as entitled to identify that and object to it as you are to challenge Meridian.

 

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