- Date published:
7:39 am, December 23rd, 2021 - 79 comments
Categories: climate change, david parker, energy, greens, james shaw, labour, megan woods, Nanaia Mahuta, science, uncategorized - Tags:
On the 9th of August this year the North Island of New Zealand had a power blackout on the coldest night of the year.
It was the first time such an event had occurred since the electricity market was formed in 1996.
According to the Minister of Energy, there were indeed “shortcomings”.
It was entirely avoidable and no household needed to have suffered a power cut even if Transpower had not deployed the demand allocation notice. The reviewers said “We find that there was no need to issue that notice, and that the system operator did so in order to further honour an equity rule embedded in the electricity code. We find that rule to be ill-conceived, and in need of prompt revision.”
Minister Woods commented that “It is also clear that the market requires much greater demand side participation if greater electrification and decarbonisation is to happen”. Well duh.
That is to say, she offloaded blame to the private sector. Of which the government is still the 51% shareholder of the key players. As well as 100% owner of Transpower. As well as 100% owner of the Electricity Authority. So harden up Minister stop offloading the blame and do your own work.
In September this year, blackouts reportedly led Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng to instruct his country’s state-owned energy companies to secure supplies for winter at any cost.
For anyone who thinks that some communitarian small-scale generator is preferable, exhibit A is Blueskin Energy Ltd. This was a proposal from the community which went through 9 years of effort and just died by strangulation. The Dunedin City Council declined the original application on the grounds of adverse amenity impacts from one turbine. So BEL scaled it down to just one single turbine. Yup, one single turbine. The Environment Court declined consent on the basis of adverse visual amenity.
There doesn’t yet appear to be any impact from a National Policy Statement on Renewable Energy on actually getting consents to build the new renewable energy we are going to need.
No-one’s tried small-scale wind generation since.
Larger-scale solar has done somewhat better but they all take the capital of major corporate backing.
At dusk on a clear evening, if you stand on any Auckland mountain, or on Christchurch’s Port Hills, you can quickly trace by lines of red carlights where our energy is spent: it’s on combustion engines taking us all where we need to go. For the foreseeable future that will likely change only a little. Auckland is spreading as far as the eye can see, and the Auckland-Hamilton expressways will expand to Tauranga, and there follows the energy flow. Beneath the starry idealism of carbon zero, down in the dark streets is the energy challenge before us.
But to achieve the energy transition we must make, our entire energy network has to shift from the roadway to the pylon.
So huge new increased loading on to electricity networks, substations, and on generators is going to be needed to do that.
At the moment the peaks of demand are generating blackouts like we’ve never had, using volumes of coal at levels never before seen in New Zealand.
In one sense it isn’t hard to understand why people dream of a future defined by more clean energy. As greenhouse gases continue to grow, water supply droughts and tropical storms hit Auckland from now November to March. It’s real right now.
And in New Zealand it is a cruel, class-calibrated and unrelenting basic commodity, where the electricity price in Kerikeri is about 40% higher than it is for a similar household down the road in Auckland where median incomes are about 25% higher. Westport’s electricity is about 40% higher than in Christchurch which on average also has higher incomes.
In both production and consumption, we are so obviously a poorly-regulated country in dire need of strong government oversight – and we haven’t even got to discussing our carbon zero goals yet.
Some lucky countries can export electricity – one of the most daring being the massive solar project that will export electricity from near Darwin to Singapore via a stupendous undersea electricity delivery cable – the Australia Asia Powerlink.
We have, helpfully, the ability to export electricity from the south to the north. No one in either the private or public sectors seems willing to make an absolute statement about Tiwai Point or the Manapouri generation, and the Lake Onslow Battery Dam project is, TBH, at least a decade into the future if it even happens.
Proponents of clean energy hope (and sometimes promise) that in addition to mitigating climate change, the energy transition that we must make will make tensions over energy resources a thing of the past. It won’t. It’s going to get a whole lot messier before stability emerges. It will likely produce new forms of competition and confrontation long before a new, more useful political economy of energy shapes up.
These are not arguments to slow or abandon the energy transition. On the contrary New Zealand like many countries at COP 26 failed to show up with a credible plan to decarbonise (since it was pulled out of their ass 48 hours before leaving), and still have to show up in a year’s time with their actual shit together.
Ministers Wood, Shaw and Parker (Energy, Climate Change, and RMA reform respectively), must pull their eyes downward from the misty clouds of climate change and stuff multiple decades away and down into the jagged, shadowy deal-by-deal path of the transition to clean energy.
More consequential right now than the long-term geopolitical implications of a distant net-zero world (as likely as an infection-free world) are the short-term perils of:
• how to get windfarms off the ground with little scope for community resistance;
• how to renew hydro dams built 100 years ago without the water reforms smashing them;
• how to get a decent regulator that actually upholds low-income consumers without the same postal-code prejudice we see in healthcare;
• how Transpower will be given the power really grip the big 51%-state-owned generators so hard they squeak rather than take it all out on the consumer through unscrutinised Asset Management Plans
As with Mahuta’s shambolic water reforms, a failure to appreciate the unintended consequences of every do-good investor to reach net zero will not only have security and economic implications; it will also undermine the energy transition itself.
A mote of hope is found in the very, very high level “overarching goals” in the 15 December 2021 Budget Policy Statement, which calls for “Laying the foundations for the future, including key issues such as out climate change response, housing affordability, and child poverty.
Wistfully, it even has a wind farm on its cover.
It would be useful, for a start, if the government would simply admit that all its goals about energy transition are close-to impossible in transport and highly unlikely to get out of coal for a decade or two: they need to re-set to stuff we have a chance of achieving and stop the bullshit.
Indeed with a bit more cold realism they ought to be able to reach cross-Parliamentary consensus as they did with legislation for climate change and with housing density.
Otherwise it’s beginning to look like just one more crap policy initiative piling upon another.
New Zealand can ill afford more bumps on the already rough road to net zero.