Energy Solutions

Hydro-electricity is renewable - and therefore good - isn't it?

Unfortunately, no. Hydro irreversably destroys river environments - while the water is renewable, wild rivers are not. Our remaining wild rivers are irreplaceable, and are endangered.

Hydro-electricity already provides well over half of New Zealand's power needs. We have sacrificed so many wild rivers to hydro-electric generation that very few on the eastern half of the South Island run freely from source to sea. Most large dams date from the Think Big era and, while generating significant power, they have a large footprint on the river systems they have altered.

Other countries say 'enough'

Approximately 1:25pm, explosives tear apart a 100-foot section of the Embrey Dam on February 23, 2004. The 770-foot concrete structure across the Rappahannock River, once used for hydroelectric power, successfully blocked fish movement upstream for almost 100 years.

Approximately 1:25pm, explosives tear apart a 100-foot section of the Embrey Dam on February 23, 2004. The 770-foot concrete structure across the Rappahannock River, once used for hydroelectric power, successfully blocked fish movement upstream for almost 100 years.

Other countries already have said enough.

Tasmania took a stand in the 1980s - the mighty Franklin River is now a National Park centrepiece and global rafting icon instead of a giant dam.

The United States is realising its error in damming so many rivers, destroying natural environments and fish passage - they have deconstructed 600 dams in the past decade to attempt to restore river habitat.

New Zealand's choice

New Zealand has already sacrificed many once-wild rivers to hydro-dams. New Zealanders know that, and for the past few decades, hydro was generally recognised as a less desirable generation option. The large environmental footprint was reflected in a lack of public tolerance. It is unsustainable and environmentally reckless to continue to dam wild rivers for more power. This does not mean going without power - there are solutions and alternatives to meet reasonable demand into the future.

The new threat to wild rivers

However, power companies are zeroing in again on our remaining wild rivers. The list of wild rivers tagged for potential hydro is extensive. Because New Zealand's electricity market costing and planning does not differentiate high-impact dams from low-impact forms of renewable energy, our wild rivers are in the firing line. It is now time to say enough to the damming of wild rivers. 

So, what are the alternatives to hydro-dams on wild rivers?

Damming of wild rivers is not required to meet New Zealand's electricity needs. There are plenty of cost-competitive, genuinely-renewable options in the pipeline, in addition to cost-effective demand reduction options. There is no need to sacrifice wild rivers.

Sensible planning

The first step would be for New Zealand to take a sensible strategic approach to energy generation. Current strategic planning does not extend to selecting low-impact proposals over high-impact ones. Indeed, the market-driven approach encourages aggressive tactics, rather than cooperation to achieve the best outcome for New Zealand. This results in each generation company scrambling to maximise their profits by building whatever generation they can get away with, at whatever cost to the environment. While the financial cost of the proposal will be considered, the unpriced cost to river ecology and landscapes, and the public's enjoyment of our wild rivers are not accounted for. Sensible energy planning would also prioritise research and development of new generation technologies, and infrastructural and consumer efficiency technology to smarter grids, distributed generation and smart meters and appliances. Progress on these is currently slow.

Supply in the pipeline

The latest update from the Electricity Commission shows there are plenty of electricity generation options available, either under construction, consented, or in the process of consenting, to meet current demand without needing to build new dam wild rivers for hydro, or build new thermal power stations. However, future demand growth - projected to continue at ~1.5% per annum to 2030 - requires a strategic and planned response.

Demand reduction

Demand reduction, and energy efficiency in general, are finally getting the attention they deserve. Once demand reduction is dispatchable just like a power station, (which recent winter testing has proved feasible and is planned for formal roll out over the next six years), demand reduction will be cheaper than any other option by far. While demand reduction can greatly reduce the supply pressure, there will be need for more generation in the next few decades due to displacement of fossil fuel generation and some economic and population growth.

Thermal power and climate change

Thermal power from fossil fuels like gas and coal is neither environmentally nor economically desirable. Climate change requires significant reductions in emissions. Additionally, new geothermal power is cheaper and does not rely on foreign fuel imports (gas) or increase greenhouse gas emissions. Geothermal also functions as base-load just like old-fashioned thermal, but without the immense carbon footprint. Wind adds more potential, and is about the same price of new thermal generation. For reference, see page 91 (Section 7.6) of the Electricity Commission's Statement of Opportunities.

Future generation

Emerging power generation technology and innovation shows promise. Tidal and wave power may become significant contributors; and solar power continues to become more efficient and cheaper per unit of power. While all forms of new generation will have environmental impacts that must be considered, the current availability of new renewable generation and future likelihood of new generation technology underline why it is unnecessary vandalism to sacrifice our wild rivers to hydrodams.

The solutions

We need to change our energy planning by making real efficiency and conservation gains, creating a stronger integrated approach, and selecting the wisest generation options and new technologies. This complex solution requires expertise and cooperation at a national level. As an active partner in the Wild Rivers campaign,. we will be advocating such an approach to government, industry and the public.

Doing nothing is not an option: the current trajectory is unsustainable and will lead to the inevitable destruction of our wild rivers, their biodiversity and their recreational benefits.