21 May 2020

Meridian Chief Executive Neal Barclay on why renewable energy can lead our recovery from the Covid-19 coronavirus.

"New Zealand's response to the current crisis is going to define our history for the next generation.

Protecting lives, health and incomes will be our overwhelming preoccupation for now. But the fact is we should not have to trade off our values against each other as we move into the recovery phase. One huge opportunity we have is to accelerate the conversion of our carbon-based economy to one powered by renewable electricity.

Unfortunately, one possible outcome of the pandemic could be a slowing of our transition to cleaner energy and a low-carbon future.

Beyond the Government's 100 per cent renewable energy target, national emissions targets, and our obligations under the Paris Agreement, there's an immediate and urgent economic case for accelerating the electrification of the New Zealand economy and the construction of new renewable energy generation to provide the power.

The investment required would be an engine of growth and create new, high-value employment opportunities. In a recessionary environment, it's not a "nice to have", it's a clear priority.

If we're going to take this path, we need to make it easier to get renewable generation projects through the planning process, and we need to recognise the importance of using water for hydro generation as we improve environmental outcomes.

The greatest barrier to kicking off large-scale renewable energy generation projects is the amount of time required for planning permissions ahead of the first shovel hitting the earth.

Planning to build a wind farm takes years, and requires predicting market conditions years in advance of the project coming on stream. Increased flexibility and streamlined consenting processes for renewable generation activities would go some way to lower barriers and reduce costs, making it easier to get projects underway as soon as possible.

As well as enabling the construction of new renewable energy projects, it is equally important to preserve and provide for the ongoing operation and enhancement of existing renewable generation, particularly the large hydro schemes that form the backbone of New Zealand's flexible energy system.
At the heart of the matter is New Zealand's Resource Management Act and the suite of planning instruments that sit underneath it. There are several changes that could be made here to both enable new renewable generation and the ongoing operation and enhancement of existing renewable generation.

Firstly, we have a relatively weak National Policy Statement for Renewable Electricity Generation.

This is the guidance that local governments use to determine how renewable energy projects are dealt with under the Resource Management Act. It sits alongside statements governing freshwater, coastal environments and other matters. All are valuable and serve important purposes.

The problem with the statement guiding renewable energy is that it lacks the teeth given to others, which require development to be avoided or have bottom lines such as specific nitrogen levels in rivers. This means decision-makers prioritise local values such as landscapes over national and global priorities like climate change mitigation, despite the climate being critical to maintaining and supporting our entire way of life.

Secondly, it is critical that nationally significant hydro schemes be recognised in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

Without recognition of their importance in the fight against climate change, there is a real risk that local decision-makers will limit the output of hydro generation, for example by requiring more water to be released to dilute the pollution caused by intensive agriculture activities downstream.

Prioritising clean energy generation alongside environmental protection in the RMA does not mean inevitable environmental damage. The footprints of renewable energy projects are getting smaller all the time, with some, like Te Uku wind farm near Raglan, winning multiple awards for environmental planning.

Communities benefit from the high-value jobs created, and our reliance on coal or other fossil fuels to generate electricity decreases. Ultimately, the foundation of New Zealand's low-carbon economy is going to rest on the availability of more locations where we can generate energy from the wind, water or sun.

We need more renewable energy to power the growing number of electric vehicles on our roads and to help with the conversion of industrial activities to electric heat, ending their current dependence on coal and gas.

The more situations we declare as "no-go" areas for generating clean energy, the further we get from reaching our climate goals, and the further we get from unlocking the economic dividends this infrastructure brings.

Landscape, biodiversity and freshwater values will always be central to our way of life in New Zealand. Other priorities must sit alongside them.

As New Zealand takes its path forward to long-term economic recovery, we must prioritise the acceleration of renewable energy alongside the management of other natural and physical resources.

By taking this path, we can retain what is truly special about our country, and help drive the transformation to a stronger and more resilient economic future for all Kiwis.

Published in the NZ Herald on 21 May 2020.