Thursday, April 25, 2024

Wind turbines stir up Southland community

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As wind farm construction ramps up to meet climate goals, we ask whether the consultation process is adequate.
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As New Zealand follows through with carbon reduction targets, billions of dollars are being committed to wind, solar and geothermal projects – but some rural communities are frustrated by what they are calling a lack of community consultation by investors. 

Dean Rabbidge, a West Catlins sheep, beef and dairy farmer and spokesperson for the West Catlins Rural Preservation Society, said there has been an overwhelming sense of anxiety and stress in his small community fuelled by the proposed Southland Wind Farm, previously known as the Slopedown Wind Farm. 

The proposed wind farm is one of several across the country – including similar projects in the South Auckland and Tararua regions – awaiting resource management consents. 

Rabbidge said the community’s concerns lie partly in preventing unwanted noise and light pollution, but more importantly protecting what he calls the “outstanding natural landscapes” that surround the community, which he said will result in the local tourism industry becoming “dead overnight if these things go ahead”. 

“The guts of the issue is that Contact Energy has lodged a resource consent to build a wind farm, consisting of 55 turbines which are 220 metres tall. Which is the Auckland Sky Tower observation deck height,” he said.  

“We’re all for decarbonisation, and the rural community is for that matter, but at what cost?  

“And the public and the residents in the community surrounding this wind farm have had no say in what is going on.” 

The issue placed Rabbidge, “by default”, he said, in the spokesperson role for the West Catlins Preservation Society, a group opposing the wind farm. 

He said the group has been working to create awareness about the issues they are facing in their community. 

Similar rural preservation groups have been set up by communities across the country, including in Waiuku, a small rural town south of Auckland which, if the recently lodged resource management consent is successful, is set to have an 18-turbine wind farm constructed.   

An artist’s impression of the proposed Southland Wind Farm from Waiarikiki Mimihau Road. Photo: West Catlins Preservation Society Facebook page. 

Rabbidge and the Waiuku Rural Preservation Society have voiced concern that the previous government’s covid fast-track consenting process negatively affected the consultation process by rushing things along. 

But chief executive of the New Zealand Wind Energy Association (NZWEA) Kevin Hart said the consultation process is adequate, and that responsibility for this mainly falls with the resource management consent process, and not with investors. 

Hart did not agree that the covid fast-track consenting process had a negative impact on the consultation process. 

“All the fast-track process does is take out a lot of the bureaucracy, and it creates a one-stop shop for consenting,” he said. 

“It doesn’t avoid or deter any form of consultation, so you still have to go through the consultation process, but it just strips out some of the bureaucracy that was built into the process over however many years.”  

He said investors follow a process to secure land rights from landowners, and from there the process is handled through the Resource Management Act (RMA). 

“Investors will identify land that has a suitable wind resource, and if that wind resource looks appealing then they approach the landowner, and then investors would secure a licence to occupy rights to specific parts of the land, which allows them to both construct and operate the wind farm,” he said. 

“Once the land use rights are secured between the two parties, the investor will then go and seek resource consent.” 

Through the resource management process, Hart said, the community and other stakeholders are then engaged. 

“The resource consent process is quite convoluted and complex, it takes a long time, you’ve gotta go through all the various stakeholder engagement processes.  

“Even though you might have a landowner that has consented to having a wind farm on their land, you still need to consult with the wider community, the local iwi, and any associated stakeholders that might be impacted either positively or negatively by the wind farm.  

“Once all that consultation process has been undertaken and there is general agreement – and I’ll add you’re never going to get 100% agreement from all the stakeholders that they are good with the proposal – then the resource consent is granted by the relevant authority.  

“From there, once the investors have consent, then they will embark on a construction phase.” 

Asked how nearby landowners and local communities can benefit from wind farms, he said that aside from various local community funds provided by energy companies, in the case of financial reimbursement, that will depend on whether nearby landowners are what is considered an “affected party”. 

The only party that gets financially reimbursed is the landowner. Although if you are an adjacent landowner then you can become what is called an affected party under the RMA,” he said. 

“And that’s where they start to assess how close is the wind farm to their house, what are the effects of noise, and a whole lot of assessment of effects are undertaken as part of this consenting process to make sure the impacts, be it real or perceived, are minimised.  

“If they are then determined as an affected party, and for whatever reason, be it the noise, or they might not like the look of them if they are that close, then the investor could approach that party and say ‘Okay I get why you’re being impacted, would financial compensation make this go away, or would that alleviate your concerns?’ 

“So we’ve been asking for an open public meeting for a long time now. And they are refusing to do that because they think their consultation is adequate.”

Dean Rabbidge, West Catlins sheep, beef and dairy farmer.

“Most of the time those adjacent landowners that don’t want them, no money is going to change their mind, they just don’t want them next to their land for a number of reasons, which is when these things end up in Environmental Court and then a judge has got to basically make a decision by weighing up all the facts and evidence. 

“But again, that is all up to the RMA, so that is out of the developer’s control, and it’s governed by the Resource Management Act.  

Given the divisive nature of the issue in rural communities, Hart said he still believes the benefits of wind turbines to the farming sector outweigh the negatives. 

“So there is an opportunity here for landowners to increase the value of their farm, because they can have 30-35 years of locked-in revenue on their less-productive farmland just by signing a bit of paper. 

“Can it inhibit farmers? I think the area that it could inhibit is obviously through lost utilisation of the land, but that can also count as a benefit. Because if you don’t get the benefit because you have underutilised land, then you obviously don’t progress.”

“So there is a negative side but there is also a positive side as well.” 

Hart is also convinced that, given on-shore wind farms are much better suited to NZ’s economic and environmental landscape over offshore wind farms, the impacts wind-turbines could have on our natural landscapes are again outweighed by their benefits. 

“They [wind turbines] are synonymous with green energy and reduced carbon emissions,” he said.

“Visual impacts are of course a factor that may contradict this statement, but in NZWEA’s view, the benefits to our climate and green economy are considerably greater than the visual impacts, which can be mitigated through various landowner and stakeholder consultations. 

“Not everyone will agree to the mitigations, but the RMA in NZ provides for some of the most stringent consultation and mitigating requirements when compared to other countries.”

Meanwhile, Rabbidge said he has been asking for an open public meeting from Contact Energy to discuss the proposed West Catlins wind farm. 

“So we’ve been asking for an open public meeting for a long time now. And they are refusing to do that because they think their consultation is adequate,” he said. 

Contact Energy’s head of wind and solar Matthew Cleland said the company “works hard to be a good neighbour and a positive part of the community”. 

“Since May 2023, we have hosted six community open days and meetings; kept our website up to date with information, and our project team have made themselves available for any questions via phone and email.”  

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