Image by: Jill Motts

Plans for the largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere just rose from the dead.

At a cost of NZ$2 billion, Project Hayes was put forward by Meridian Energy, the country’s first carbon neutral energy company, a state-owned enterprise that provides renewable electricity in New Zealand. The proposal involved 176 turbines, each 160 metres high, erected across some 92 square kilometres of the Lammermoor Ranges in Central Otago, a stark and sparsely populated landscape.

By 2007, Meridian had secured consents from the Central Otago and Otago Regional Councils. After an appeal by opponents, however, the Environment Court refused consent in November 2009, stating that Meridian had failed to demonstrate the proposal was economically preferable to other possible schemes and sites. This decision was appealed in turn by Meridian Energy and, in August this year, the High Court upheld Meridian’s appeal, requesting that the Environment Court reconsider its decision. The new hearing is scheduled for 15th November 2010. This date may change, however, after Save Central, an opposition umbrella group, filed notice to the Court of Appeal last week.

Opposition to wind farms is often chalked up to the NIMBY attitude (Not In My Back Yard). An analysis of submissions to Project Hayes, however, revealed that 60 per cent of local submissions were actually in favour of the proposal, while only 30 per cent of non-local submissions supported Project Hayes. The link between proximity and opposition, a central assumption of the NIMBY concept, is far from clear. What matters more, the research suggests, is the general context of the Project Hayes proposal, including the project’s size, the local impacts of construction, the cumulative effect of neighbouring projects, and public perceptions of the developer.

Crucially, the study found that one of the two most common reasons for opposing the proposal was ‘landscape context’. (The other was changes to farm boundaries, a clearer instance of NIMBYism.) Certainly, the iconic status of the region cannot be understated. One of the most high profile opponents of Project Hayes is local resident and artist Graeme Sydney whose finely rendered paintings are a celebration of the hardy landscape, appealing to popular ideals of a rugged and beautiful high country. As demonstrated by the recent backlash against mining proposals, New Zealanders are passionately protective of certain vistas, even when it defies economic ‘sense’.

What makes the issue so thorny is that, at its heart, it is a clash of identical values. The moral argument for Project Hayes is an appeal to the same environmental values that motivates the opposition. We want to reduce our greenhouse emissions because we want to protect the environment, so it seems deeply perverse to spoil our natural treasures in order to save the very same. A similar conflict gnaws at nuclear power, an ‘unenvironmental’ solution to an environmental problem. Morality loathes inconsistency, even if the real world rarely allows anything but.

This tug-of-war between environmental values creates opportunities for critics of green policy. Prominent climate change sceptics were recruited as witnesses in the Environment Court appeal, a worrying conflation of two distinct issues. After all, one can disagree with Project Hayes specifically while still supporting emissions reductions policies generally. If these two issues are merged, however, the debate over the merits of a single wind farm is subsumed into the more troubled debate over the existence of global warming, which paralyses any clear analysis of energy policy. In the same vein, one strident critic of climate change policy described Project Hayes as ‘environmental vandalism’, turning the proposal for clean energy against its own green aspirations.

Meridian Energy may have to tread carefully, more carefully than it has so far. While the Environment Court’s decision will have a significant impact on future wind farm proposals, so will the reputation that Meridian gains in the meantime. If perceptions of developers play a role in a community’s attitude toward wind farm proposals, then Meridian’s intractable attitude may handicap future projects. Nor has their image been helped by media reports that Meridian paid NZ$175,000 to the Department of Conservation in 2007 to drop its objections to Project Hayes.

A survey of landowners in the region found that 78 per cent would support a wind farm of less than five turbines, while 54 per cent would support a wind farm of more than fifty. Perhaps support dwindles further at 176 turbines, yet this research nevertheless suggests there is ample room to move. If Meridian continues going after its ‘big game’, however, it may end up with nothing or a bullish reputation, neither of which will help the advent of clean energy.

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