Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Windy vs Nimby

Makara wind farm from a distance. Ugly or acceptable?

New Zealanders like to think of their country as "clean and green", and part of this claim stems from the large proportion of the country's electricity being generated by renewable resources such as hydroelectric power, wind turbines and geothermal generation.

Wellington is one of the windiest areas of the country, so it should come as no surprise that the power companies were keen to set up a wind farm outside the city, bordering Cook Strait.

Wind generation is generally met with approval in principle by the public - but only when the turbines are to be located "somewhere else". It's the perfect example of NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome. Nobody wants to look out their window and see a hundred wind turbines. Not when they paid for a charming view across the mountains. So go ahead and build a wind farm - just not in my back yard!

The wind farm pictured at the top of this post was hotly debated, and is just being completed now after years of arguing. The nearby residents complained that the turbines would create too much noise. (You know, that whoosh sound the blades make as they sweep around.) In the end, the company agreed to cut back the number of planned turbines, eliminating those that were closest to homes. But don't worry, people will still complain about it.

Even when no homes are close by, people protest every proposed wind farm. "It will ruin the natural beauty of the area" they say. I say, better to look at a few wind turbines than to burn more coal and not be able to see anything through the smog! If we are lucky enough to live somewhere where wind generation is feasible, I think it's crazy not to use it. Especially when you think about the alternatives.

Even other "clean" generation like hydroelectric power has a greater impact on the environment. Dams can change the landscape significantly by making reservoirs and changing the flow of local rivers. Still better than burning gas or coal though, if you ask me.

That's my rant about wind farms. Frankly, I think they look just fine. Graceful, even. And if someone wants to put a turbine in my back yard that's OK by me. Except that my back yard is too small, and I don't actually own it.


Mike said...

Hi Michelle. Strangely I've been on the edge of writing something about a similar topic myself but haven't quite formulated it yet.

I like wind generation, but I can appreciate why locals get concerned about it. I also don't think it's too selfish for people to get hung up about property values, which is ultimately what many of the protests I've heard have been about with Makara at least.

Society here has been encouraged to bank on property values for several decades now. It shouldn't be surprising that that's exactly what people have been doing. It's an expected way of life here to get a job, buy some nice land with a house on it, spend lots of your life to work hard and pay it off, and then benefit from it in your later years. Maybe that's by enjoying the property you own without working, or by selling up and moving somewhere else to retire with a nice little slush fund to live off. Having land re-zoned (or just seeing things change in ways that couldn't be predicted) and having corporations come along 15-20 years after you got started on this ideal -- collectively beneficial for the nation or not -- could really screw up a life plan, especially if there's not adequate compensation being offered to replace whatever you perceive yourself as losing.

If someone's one and only property suddenly drops in value by $50,000 or $100,000 because a corporation decides to build a wind farm down the road without comparable compensation, it's a lot of money for an individual person or family to lose. This is especially the case if that's the only major asset in their life, and if that $50,000 was supposed to be the slush fund to keep them going for the final 10 years after retirement.

I don't think the Resource Management Act is perfect as it is for several reasons, but I like it better than the situation in the 1960's when the Electricity Department and Ministry of Works had the legal rights to go anywhere and destroy anything they wanted, even in designated National Parks, without any public consultation or public notice period or published justification, for the simple benefit of building new dams and roads. And they did, too!

AktoMan said...

I disagree with the high-handed attitude of the wind turbine folk. I see a lot of it here in Scotland.

It has been known for years how to cut back the noise - but the rails haven't been introduced.

There are other designs. But mostly it is the 'standard' turbine one.

In Scotland, they want to build 'super-pylons' through scenic areas. There is the option to run the cables underground, but it is cheaper to ruin a scenic area.

There are other ways to generate power (eg tidal, solar, wave), but the main focus seems to be on the big turbines. Maybe because of funding from the government here. I don't know.

I'm all in favour of a sensible, mature 'alternative' fuel policy. But destroying the landscape to do it just seems wrong. It seems strange that a lot of these wind factories have to be build away from the cities that need the power - and not just because of the wind conditions.

Why not make the area around a city/township responsible for provide, say 60% of the power used by it. Sod NIMBY-ism - they use it, they can have a community effort to solve their own power problems.

Just a thought.

Mike said...

"Why not make the area around a city/township responsible for provide, say 60% of the power used by it. Sod NIMBY-ism - they use it, they can have a community effort to solve their own power problems."On that last thought, I suppose because people out of town might still want to sell lots of power to a city if those people can easily generate much more than they need, and it'd seem unfair to prevent it.

If some places are genuinely better for power generation than others, it'd be really inefficient to prevent it happening for some arbitrary political reason.

AktoMan said...

Agreed, Mike.

But for two facts.

1. it isn't "people" selling power. It is companies doing it. There are good community projects out there, but there are a lot of companies making money out of it.

2. downside with a lot of the areas that are, say, really windy, is that there are remote. So then there's the problem of tranferring the power from there to the rural (less remote) places. Here in Scotland, the preferred method (i.e. the cheapest) is to build mega-pylons across the highlands to the central belt.

All that is needed is a joined-up, democratically approved methodology, one that involves the community, and a lot of alternative approaches to alternative power generation become viable. But, of course, that won't please the companies who have invested in wind-only generation methods. So, they'll keep lobbying for their schemes, and strangely, in the background, a nuclear lobby is resurging in the UK. But I don't know if it is in NZ?

Mike said...

But to at least some extent, people in a community usually benefit from a company generating power in that region. (Employment and such, and secondary gains that result from employment.) Otherwise I kind of agree.

Nuclear generation is dead in NZ, mostly for political reasons but it's probably also impractical. The real-time generation and distribution comparison is visible here. Yesterday the Cook Straight Cable was down between the 2 islands (normally transporting abou 400 MW). This resulted in an absurd scenario where spot-prices for power in the South Island (with most of the hydro generation near the southern end) were $0.02, but the North Island (with most of the people near the northern end) were around $55.00.

New Zealand has a wacky economy for power generation which I don't think results in optimal use of resources. In 1999, the government-operated Electricity Corporation of NZ was split into several state-owned companies (Meridian, Genesis, Mighty River Power). There are now 4 such companies (I think). All are owned by the government, and they're all told to compete with each other.

NZ is also a very inefficient user of electricity. In particular, it's popping full of houses with barely any insulation meaning huge heating bills, which may be a consequence of cheap subsidised government-capped electricity prices in the past. There are a few efforts to try and encourage people to spend lots of money improving efficiency, but this seems quite disconnected from the generation economy, in which all the power generators are violently scrambling to improve their generation capacity more quickly than their competitors.

There's currently a higher demand than supply, and every generator wants to try to be the first in to have that supply so they have as large-a-piece of the generation pie as possible before the demand flattens off, and put themselves in a better position for the future compared with competitors.

I personally think the Makara wind farm that Michelle was talking about is quite a good idea, but I'm also concerned that there's not much of an overall national plan to make sure that the ideas getting implemented are the best overall, as opposed to the ones that simply happen to be easiest for whatever generation company got there first.

The big problem with Makara, and many others, was an act called the Resource Management Act (now under review), which puts a lot of control of new developments into the hands of people who live in an area where it's likely to take place, and it's crippling the consent process for lots of major infrastructure projects.

I think there definitely needs to be some change to the systems that let everyone scream "not in my back-yard", but there also needs to be some acknowledgement that it's not just happening because people are being selfish when they're really just declaring that they don't want to be the ones to have to sacrifice large amounts of their own well-being just because everyone else thinks they should. People act as they're encouraged to, and then they get penalised for it.

AktoMan said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Mike. The Cook Strait cable example was amazing to read as there's potentially similar cables going in from remote Scottish islands.

As to a joined-up-approach, I remember hearing about a Dutch (IIRC) company that was involved in novel approaches like a more efficient doorbell. Weird, but they reckoned the amount of power used on doorbells over the EU would save a significant amount if a new low-power system was used.

They also came up with a heat pump that generated cold air for a/c units somewhere in the Caribbean.

I like it when people think like that.

Being brought up to switch off lights and the tv, etc helps too. I guess some people get out of the habit.

In a case of non-NIMBYism - my folks are from the Isle of Lewis, on the edge of a planned wind farm. There were hardly any objections until the private power company doubled the height of the turbines to make more money.

Up in Orkney/Shetland, it seems to be more community-driven. Which is nice. Certainly more joined-up in their approach.

As to the planning stage - agreed, something should be done. I remember walking through southern Scotland a couple of years back, and the wind turbines they had didn't look out of place in the farmed land, which was mainly man-made anyway. I think someone has to consider the (potential) damage to tourism, eg, will a tidal boom cause a hazard to shipping, will turbines put off wilderness-seekers from coming to the area?

And on that note - why are wind turbines painted white? Does someone want them to be visible for miles? Just a thought ;-)

Anonymous said...

Good comment Michelle. Nimby's really annoy me, they are just so selfish. Wind power is a great clean technology.

I think power companies could explore giving cheap power to people in the area, and also investing in the local area, this a great way so that people can benefit from the wind turbines and then see then as a real benefit (apart from the heaps of jobs they create).

Mike said...

I still think it's a straw man fallacy to simply label people who have problems with such developments as Not-In-My-Back-Yard whingers and then write them off as irrelevant. Typically people who don't want something like this to happen are doing so because, either in their eyes or monetarily in their bank account, they stand to lose a whole lot more than anyone else and it's not going to be replaced by whatever compensation is being offered.

Michelle even alluded in the original post that people paid for a charming view across the mountains. These views don't exactly come cheap, and to some people who live there, the area will mean far more than disposable scenery that matches government valuation and can be easily substituted by picking up to move somewhere else.

There's not a great answer to this kind of problem without at least some people losing out, and personally I think the Makara wind farm is a good thing. But simply labeling people as crying "not in my back yard" and writing them off as if they don't have legitimate concerns is arrogant and selfish in itself. At the very least the negative aspects should be clearly acknowledged so it's on the record what people are losing and giving up for the betterment of "the collective".

What I'd find interesting right now, or at least once the wind farm is fully complete, is an assessment of the concerns that were raised (noise, views, public access, etc), and how justified they turned out to be for those people after the fact.

Mike said...

Just as it's related:
Turbine hum 'like airport'

'A humming noise from a wind farm near Wellington is driving sleep-deprived locals potty.

'"It's been horrific, it's noise torture," Makara resident Hans Renner said. "We just want some sleep, I don't think that's an unreasonable request."'

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