Being green is tough when nuclear looks NZ’s solution
ON the surface, the New Zealanders should be in green power heaven— 70 per cent of their power supply already comes from hydro-electric systems and they have some of the best resources for wind power in the world. A little deeper, though, and the Kiwis are less sanguine about life in a carbon-constrained world than might be expected.
Hydro-electric production has been stalled for 15 years — not least because of difficulties with the Maori community over land use — and the reliability of existing supply is continuously threatened by drought. With climate scientists threatening capricious rainfall patterns for the future, the hydro option causes more furrowed brows than smiles among policymakers.
Having hydro power at hand is very useful for wind farm development, with the former being able to quickly replace supply when wind drops. This is how the Danes have been able to build a large wind industry — they rely on Norwegian hydro-electric back-up.
However, initial optimistic forecasts of wind development in New Zealand have stumbled over the hurdle that the best sites do not tend to coincide with hydro power availability or demand centres — and both the high-voltage transmission business owned by the Government and the Electricity Commission, the industry regulator, are concerned about how much intermittent wind power can be put in to the grid system without creating instability.
When the hydro limits first became obvious in the late 1960s, the New Zealanders looked to nuclear energy. A plan was developed to build four 250MW nuclear reactors near Auckland to be operating by 1990. Then a large gas field was discovered offshore, along with coal near the North Island’s Waikato River, and the nuclear project was ditched.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the Maui gas field is in sharp decline — with other gas reserves not thought likely to provide adequate supply beyond another 10 years. And the Huntly coal plant has to run at 30-50 per cent below capacity on very hot days because it has licence problems with heat.
Greenhouse gas emissions also present a problem for a Government that was quick to ratify Kyoto. There are substantial coal deposits in the South Island, but the global warming issue militates against their exploitation.
The New Zealand Government has decreed that 90 per cent of the country’s electricity should be sourced from renewables by 2020. But this decision is under fire from power suppliers over reliability issues and from manufacturers fearing electricity prices that may well make them uncompetitive on the international markets.
After 40 years, nuclear is back on the table in New Zealand. It is not easy being green.