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Why we save rivers

Written By: - Date published: 7:15 am, August 29th, 2019 - 47 comments
Categories: Conservation, sustainability - Tags: , , , , ,

The Minister for the Environment, David Parker, announced yesterday that an application from Westpower to divert the Waitaha River for hydo-electric power generation had been declined. Forest and Bird were delighted with the decision.

It’s a very good decision for a number of reasons.

One is that the conservation estate should be off limits for development unless there are compelling conservation reasons. We’re still struggling to maintain and restore native ecosystems and species, and every new road brings in more problems. 



There are cultural and spiritual values here too. We should keep some places in nature for their own sake, not our uses. The shift in mindset from nature being a resource, to nature having rights is challenging for many New Zealanders, but it’s the one that will avert climate catastrophe.

Mainstream responses to climate change are now pushing us hard towards green tech BAU, but this is still an extractive, exploitation-based paradigm, a lesser evil that makes us feel better and enables us to ignore the deeper changes needed. It’s useful as a transition but it’s not sustainable in the sense of the primary criteria being that the system regenerates itself.

Nature can absorb a certain degree of non-regenerative components in a system, but these shouldn’t be the base of the system nor excessive in use. If the Waitaha were dammed and the West Coast economy grown, which is the next river that would be damned to continue that growth?

This is the essential problem with exponential growth that New Zealand, and the whole world, is grappling with as we hit the limits of nature. We still tend to see the environment as lots of unused or under-utilised resources, and this view leads to extractive, depleting approaches.

When looking at how to meet human needs, instead of ‘how much can we get away with taking?’ we can start with ‘how do the natural systems of this place already work?’ (nature is resilient and regenerative by default). We can then ask ‘how can we fit into those systems so they continue to regenerate?’

Chopping a river in half, and reducing its flow by up to 85%, is a big fail in those terms. It stems from the world view that leads inevitably to mass extinctions and runaway climate change, because ignoring the limits of nature produces bad design.

Photo – LawrieM

Ad pointed out the economic implications for the West Coast communities: that Westpower are big employers, that Coasters need better paid jobs than tourism is offering, that monolithic power generating companies are sucking the lifeblood from us. We’ve been hearing these arguments from the traditional left for a long time, and this is the new greenwashed version of jobs before environment. There is no good reason that we can’t meet human needs and protect nature. 



Coasters being paid low wages is a social justice issue and exploiting nature won’t solve that, it just keeps a game of musical chairs going. Wasn’t tourism supposed to solve this problem? Never mind that moving to near zero carbon is going to require massive change to that industry, a conversation we’ve barely begun. Time we started creating sustainable economies and the beauty here is that if we start with a conservation and regenerative ethic, then the jobs created will be more resilient and less impactful. Inherent in that is a fair wage because social and environmental justice go hand in hand.



Monolithic power companies come from neoliberal, money-grabbing, trickle-down theories. As others have pointed out, there is plenty of scope for wind power on the Coast. Best case scenario is to create generation systems that are quake and climate resilient and that feed into the local economy.

While I think there is probably potential for small scale, local hydro generation in specific places in NZ, I think we are past being able to enslave rivers simply in the pursuit of more growth. The problem is the growth itself coupled with the idea that somehow life will end if humans don’t keep expanding, when the truth is exactly the opposite.

 

Postscript: Speaking of conservation, now that we have a somewhat less neoliberal government perhaps we can take a long hard look at the Department of Conservation and why it is aligned with and actively supports development within the conservation estate.

In return for the concession, Westpower would have paid DoC a market fee set at 6 per cent of gross revenue annually.

Photo – Andrew Buglass

47 comments on “Why we save rivers ”

  1. tc 1

    We have sufficient sustainable generation already. What we don't have is a robust well maintained network thanks to the Bradford 'reforms'.

    Its a distribution and political issue involving an aluminum smelter.

    Auckland cbd got a second feed some 15 years after the 97 blackout…..if that’s market efficiency something is clearly not working.

    • Andre 1.1

      Well, no, looking at how much electricity is coming from Huntly and other fossil-fired power stations, no we don't have sufficient sustainable generation. We have a huge number of sustainable generation schemes (that don't affect the conservation estate) that have been consented, but aren't getting built in this time of flat demand because the economics don't stack up.

      So what we have is a lack of will to make whatever combination of regulatory, structural, taxation, and whatever other changes needed to build the new sustainable generation facilities enabling the closure of fossil generators.

      One of those possible changes is indeed taking a cold clear look at how Tiwai Point really fits into the national interest, and how to help Southland through the transition following its closure. But the coming wave of electric transport will still require new generation beyond freeing up Manapouri's output.

      • weka 1.1.1

        Hence my point about growth.

      • fustercluck 1.1.2

        If you want electric cars AND want to stop burning coal, the only practical solution is nuclear. Pebble bed reactors and thorium salt reactors do not have the same potential for disaster as water-cooled reactors.

        Even lefty icons are beginning to see the light. Michale Moore's new movie "Planet of the Humans" sheds light on the fallacies of wind generation, battery & solar panel production, etc.

        If NZ got rid of the smelter and invested in safer, low residue nuclear technology, we would have the energy economy solved for generations.

        If we continue to defile the environment with wind farms (that consume huge amounts of fossil fuel and mining resources to develop and have very short service lives) and insist on current EV technology similarly burdened with Earth-destroying battery technology, we will contribute far more to environmental degradation worldwide.

        I personally think that continuing to upgrade NZ's vehicle fleet with highly efficient internal combustion vehicles is a far better and more practical step to be taken as opposed to subsidising EV technology dependant upon vast mining of rare earth minerals for batteries with short service lives, etc.

        And I agree that ditching the smelter is the only sane way forward for Manapouri's power resource.

        • Andre 1.1.2.1

          New Zealand has such an abundance of renewable capacity I'd be astonished if we ever got to the point of having nukes feeding electricity into our grid. Even if small modular reactors start getting produced in huge quantities elsewhere in the world. I just can't see them being cost competitive with wind and solar, where costs for new schemes are going under USD0.03/kWhr. But I'm picking if the world ever gets serious about going zer-carbon, then shipping will go to small modular nukes, which are ideal for providing steady power in the range of 10MW to 100MW, exactly what a ship requires.

          As far as rare-earths goes, there's a ton of R&D going into ways to eliminate their use in motors and generators. See here, or here.

          There's also a lot of effort going into eliminating cobalt from batteries. Tesla has been pretty successful, getting theirs down to around 3% cobalt, where competitors are above 10% (as were Tesla's early efforts). There's also others looking at alternative chemistries that are completely free of stuff like cobalt, such as lithium-sulfur batteries, or further down the track, room temp sodium sulfur batteries.

        • JohnP 1.1.2.2

          It's not just the cost of building a nuclear power plant or two, which would easily power the whole country – there's the additional cost of the surrounding industry required to maintain, supply and keep them safe – which given our location would need to be in the country.

          It's cheap, if you look in terms of power produced – but expensive when you consider everything else that's needed to produce the power.

          And that's before we get to where you put a nuclear power station in a country that's geologically active and the most inland point is about 120km away from the sea in Otago.

          • fustercluck 1.1.2.2.1

            Pebble bed reactors do not require the same kind of infrastructure as breeder reactors (used to produce power plus material for bombs).

        • Craig H 1.1.2.3

          Agreed in world terms, although I think NZ could just dump the aluminium smelter and that would go far enough with solar, wind and existing hydroelectric.

    • Dukeofurl 1.2

      "Auckland cbd got a second feed some 15 years after the 97 blackout"

      Thats not true , Auckland always had 3, they put an extra one in from Mt Roskill soon after and the tunnel from Penrose you mention came was finished in 2000 . Not 15 yrs as you claim

  2. vto 2

    If you want to limit the incentives for DOC to turn the conservation estate into a gigantic business resource then the income that activity generates for DOC needs to be wiped.

    I see it is pointed out that DOC would have taken 6% of gross revenue. My own business interests with DOC involve them taking 7% of gross revenue.

    Anyone in business will know that taking a 6-7% slice off the top like that is massive. It is in fact more than most businesses operating in the DOC estate would make in profit… Just let that sink in for a bit.

    DOC may as well own all the businesses in the DOC estate, such is the massive return it gets.

    This needs urgent cancellation. Otherwise the incentives will remain running against what you are trying to achieve.

    • Dukeofurl 2.1

      So you want free acess – no way. Just pay up.

      • weka 2.1.1

        Tying concession fees to profit is clearly about revenue generation for DOC rather than simply about fairness of commercial access. Looks like a clear conflict of interest given DOC are going involved in consent processes for development with National Parks.

        This is why people have been so dismayed at DOC giving the go ahead to industrial projects. It doesn't make sense for an org whose primary objective is conservation. Unless you are neoliberal and believe that conservation should be paid for by conservation generating its own funding (which is daft).

      • vto 2.1.2

        No that is not what I said, try reading better, egg

        • Dukeofurl 2.1.2.1

          "6% of gross revenue. "

          Do you know how franchises work ? You are getting off lightly. If you are paying yourself , thats before profit. Do you know what UBER charges.

          The concession is based on total revenue , as it should be . It baffles me why 6% is such a burden , if its not a great business , it is what it is.

          No reason the taxpayers support smaller less popular business who USE conservation land to make money

          • vto 2.1.2.1.1

            yeah yeah I know all that…. but it wasn't the point. The point was that DOC is incentivised to industrialise the estate by this structure.

            And this structure is about money-making. It is not about cost recovery, or any such thing like that. If it was about cost recovery fees would be a flat rate covering time by staff and some small overhead only.

            It is solely about money-making from the estate. = problem

            • Dukeofurl 2.1.2.1.1.1

              Industrialising it , that would fees of 12-18%

              Its only 5c in every dollar. How much do you pay for places that book your service for tourists ? 15 or 20%?

            • weka 2.1.2.1.1.2

              Vto, are all concessions now charged at a % rather than flat fees? Do you know when that happened?

      • KJT 2.1.3

        Individuals should have free access to the conservation estate and facilities. After all, we pay for it.

        Businesses being allowed to restrict access or having sole rights to any part, is simply, wrong.

  3. vto 3

    weka, a stat on the amount of revenue generated by commercial activity would be useful. Other useful associated stats would also include the number of concessions related to that revenue, by region, and the profit made by those concession holders.

    I would wager that the businesses make less than DOC out of commercial activity in the DOC estate…. and that is the front page headline… the headline that may make the politicians take notice ….

    • weka 3.1

      The DOC revenue should be available somewhere? Or OIA request? Might be worth someone looking on Newsroom, they do good coverage of issues like this. Or Charlie Mitchell.

  4. vto 4

    How much does a chopper cost per hour?

    How many of them are operating right now in the DOC estate? There are about 50 in Franz alone.

    Take that number and multiply it by 7%.

    It will surprise.

    • KJT 4.1

      Once upon a time, choppers were not allowed on most conservation land.

      A clear example of commercial interests being allowed to override conservation values.

      • Dukeofurl 4.1.1

        How many tourists came to NZ back then and now they are all headed to the South Island.

        Once I remember a small turbo prop landing at MT Cook airfield, and no one could imagine what Queenstown has become.

    • Dukeofurl 4.2

      Ahh that your real gripe

      Too much competition , you want numbers reduced so prices rise.

      • weka 4.2.1

        Vto has clearly stated his position and concerns and clarified them. If you start making shit up about people's points you'll be out. Don't start flame wars under my posts.

      • bwaghorn 4.2.2

        It would be a great way to ut the carbon emmisions caused be tourism. Make it so dare on the wealthy come here. Not very socialist if me but fuck it if tourism was cut to 2 million visits a year it would be much better for all except maybe the low paid staff servicing the masses.

        • weka 4.2.2.1

          Cutting mass tourism seems inevitable to me. Even the tourism industry knows this although they don't like to talk about it.

          I'd want NZer access to conservation land to be protected somehow.

  5. Ad 5

    Here's the full Assessment of Effects if anyone's interested, with maps and facts and actual qualified analysis and stuff:

    http://www.westpower.co.nz/news/article/application-concessions-and-assessment-effects

    Support from Conservation Board, support from iwi, support from DoC, support from regulators.

    It's Minister Parker alone who killed this job.

  6. bwaghorn 6

    At only 12000 homes worth of power it's a no brainer to not do it .

    • Matiri 6.1

      There's also Trustpower's Arnold scheme which is already consented, at Dobson which is just 30 minutes drive away. At 46MW more than twice the size of this Waitaha scheme. Trustpower haven't done anything with it because the economics don't stack up at the moment.

      • mac1 6.1.1

        In Parliament today, Minister Wood replied to Maureen Pugh that the Waitaha scheme was rated at 20 Mw, but in NZ there was another 3 Gw which had been consented but not yet built, and Waitaha was therefore not needed.

    • Ad 6.2

      That's Greymouth and surrounding townships covered forever, no more coal fires to stay warm.

  7. Stuart Munro. 7

    Waitaha had some merit, from a generation perspective, being on the wet side of the main divide, unlike the other perennially depleted lakes. It's lovely country though, mildly goated and dotted with ultramafics here and there – I carried rocks for a geologist there back in the day.

    The argument was rather optimistic though – DoC should have got 60% of the earnings, not 6%. And, although I'm sure there are plenty of construction jobs, assuming irresponsible government didn't hand out work permits like sweeties to all and sundry, the long term jobs would be no more than the Waitaki power dams provide – a mere handful.

    • Ad 7.1

      A handful of $100k jobs is all you heed on the West Coast to flow a lot of service jobs beyond.

      • Stuart Munro. 7.1.1

        Not sure I agree with that – but it has all the hallmarks of a modest scheme appropriate to local needs. Near Dunedin we have the similar sized Waipori scheme, which proved a very sensible piece of work for the DCC – until it had to be protected from scavenging privateers. How those thieving motherfuckers escape imprisonment is a mystery to me.

  8. Graeme 8

    The Coast is sitting on what may be a major geothermal resource. In a geological borehole at Whataroa,

    "At 630m deep they discovered water hot enough to boil. Such temperatures would typically be found at depths greater than 3km"

    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/the-country/news/article.cfm?c_id=16&objectid=11858291

    GNS is currently doing work to quantify the resource

    https://www.gns.cri.nz/Home/News-and-Events/Media-Releases/geothermal-potential

    There's a bit of geothermal use on the Coast already, Westland Produce have quite large heated glasshouse producing eggplant and chilies year round, bit in the link above, and Gloriavale are evidently looking into geothermal energy (they are right on the fault)

  9. gsays 9

    Great post Weka, thanks for the thought provoking opinion.

    I am intrigued by the tensions that arise around the hydro electric schemes vs conservation.

    I am aware of Derrick Jensen and his endgame thesis. Seeing it as his duty to allow fish to return to their spawning grounds, by destroying dams if need be.

    Contrasting this is our proud boast as a country with a high % of renewable electricity generation.

    Energy conservation has to be part of the answer along with the sea change away from biggering and biggering.

    Making it easier and more equitable for dwellings to generate power and feed to the grid.

    This probably means nationalizing the power companies and undoing Bradfords perverse 'reforms'.

    • weka 9.1

      thanks gsays. I'm with Jensen on this, although I don't have a good sense of our equivalent of the salmon run and its critical role in the ecologies of those watersheds. Eels are affected here, but their roles are more subtle. I'd love to know if anyone is writing about NZ in that way.

      Decentralising seems a no brainer to me when looking at the Coast. I was disappointed to see even Forest and Bird talking about the national grid as if it was resilient and future proofed. The first thing to go when the Alpine Fault shifts will be the SI power supply. If that happens in the middle of winter, then the Coast will be well served by decentralised systems backed up by the grid for when it gets restored. We learned this from Chch. It's even more important when we consider that the Coast will infrastructure damage that we've never had to deal with in NZ before.

      And in that conservation.

      Bradford has a lot to answer for.

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