Being green is tough when nuclear looks NZ's solution

By Keith Orchison
(Published in The Weekend Australian, 10-11 May 2008)

On the surface the New Zealanders should be in green power heaven -- 70 percent of their power supply already comes from hydro-electric systems and they have some of the best resources for wind power in the world.

Scratch 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 systems to back them up.

However initial optimistic forecasts of wind development in New Zealand have stumbled over the hurdle that the best sites do not tend to co-incide with hydro power availability or demand centres -- and the 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 turn to nuclear energy. A plan was developed to build four 250 MW nuclear reactors near Auckland, to be in operation 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 gasfield is in sharp decline -- with other gas reserves not thought likely to provide adequate supply beyond another 10 years -- while the Huntly coal plant has to run at 30 to 50 percent below capacity on very hot days because it has licence problems with the heat it dumps in the Waikato. Greenhouse gas emissions also present a problem for a government that was quick to ratify the Kyoto treaty.

There are also substantial coal deposits on South Island, but the global warming issue militates against their exploitation.

The New Zealand government has decreed that 90 percent of the country's electricity should be sourced by renewables by 2020 but this decision is under fire from power suppliers over reliability issues and from energy-intensive manufacturers over electricity prices that may well make them uncompetitive on the international markets.

A survey of business leaders has shown that 94 percent are concerned about the energy outlook.

After 40 years the nuclear card is back on the table in New Zealand.  It is not easy being green.

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