Op-Ed: Why the Clutha conversation matters

Opinion – Neil Gillespie

Everybody wants and needs electricity. Most of us agree that our electricity should be clean and renewable. So how do we as a country best deliver the clean, reliable supplies of electricity to power our long-term energy future? How do we ensure the …


Why the Clutha conversation matters

by Neil Gillespie

Everybody wants and needs electricity. Most of us agree that our electricity should be clean and renewable.

So how do we as a country best deliver the clean, reliable supplies of electricity to power our long-term energy future? How do we ensure the energy choices we make don’t add to the world’s climate change problems or tie our energy supply and price to the vagaries of politically unstable international oil and gas markets?

The answer is that if we are to continue to maintain a reliable and largely renewable supply of electricity for all New Zealanders, we need to continue to develop the very best renewable generation options available to us.

We think a further development on the Clutha River – in addition to the existing power stations at Clyde and Roxburgh – represents one of the country’s best renewable options.

So, Contact has started discussing the possibility for further hydro development with local communities. Through our website, we’ve placed the information we inherited from the old ECNZ on the Queensbury, Luggate, Beaumont and Tuapeka Mouth options in the public domain and we’ve started to host a discussion around those options.

From the outset, we decided a fresh, new approach was needed. Rather than present a done deal to the community and then start to talk, we are listening carefully to the full range of views before making any decision on which option to progress. It’s important to be clear – we have no preferred option at this time; the conversation is about exploring ideas as to how one of these four projects, or perhaps one not thought of yet, could be developed for the benefit of the country and local communities.

We’ve been really pleased with the high level of engagement from across the Clutha communities. I’ve personally answered numerous phone calls, responded to a large number of emails, met with a number of people, and a discussion board on our website has attracted more than 150 separate postings.

Regardless of what it is and where it is, every electricity generation project has its detractors. Almost without exception, there will be people who want something else, somewhere else. While there are some who oppose development of any kind in Otago – whether wind or hydro -¬ we’ve been particularly encouraged by the balance of views.

There is an acknowledgment that we will all need more electricity, it needs to be renewable and we need to develop our resources carefully, respectful of the natural environment and local communities. In this context, that means listening closely to the views of the community, ensuring any development leads to benefits for the country and the environment and that local communities also benefit from the investment in new power stations.

Contact’s preference is for future hydro development to occur on the Clutha, as it is already modified. The river has some of the best hydro electricity options in New Zealand and, in our view, it makes better sense for us to add hydro schemes to the same river than to start again somewhere else.

Through the discussions we are now having with local communities, there is a growing understanding that the South Island is becoming increasingly dependent on electricity generated in the North Island and that there have been no significant electricity generation projects built in the South over the last 10 years to absorb increasing demand. This trend is set to continue.

We need to develop our best energy options across both the North and the South Islands if we are to meet our global climate change commitments and avoid the need for importing expensive natural gas to generate electricity. We can’t as a country afford to rule out any one form of renewable electricity generation.

In this respect, Contact is actively developing electricity projects across all the major fuel types to support more renewables.

New hydro generation on the Clutha would help meet growing South Island and national electricity demand, and support security of supply by complementing any new wind developments.

It would lead to massive investment in the region over the construction period. Longer term, ongoing benefits could include: creation of a new lake and an increase in associated recreational activities such as fishing and boating; development of parallel irrigation schemes which could open up new agricultural opportunities; a long-term increase in local economic activity through tourism, lakeside developments and newly irrigated agricultural land; improved regional amenities, such as water supplies and roading networks; a permanent increase in the regional population following construction, as occurred in Cromwell after the Clyde Dam; and potentially an increase in property values.

Of course, as with any power development there would be benefits and impacts. Our challenge in this process is to ensure that any impacts are offset by the benefits. This will continue to involve a partnership approach with local communities and an ongoing commitment to doing the right thing by people and the environment. This does not mean that we expect that everyone will agree with our plans and ultimately the balancing of the benefits and impacts will be determined through the consenting process that will need to be undertaken for any project.

I was born in Cromwell and have lived most of my life here. I’ve brought up a family here and I’m deeply passionate about this region and its people. I personally believe there is a balance that can be struck between further hydro development for the good of us all and continuing to protect the wellbeing of people and the environment.

It’s important that we all think outside of the square, avoid entrenched positions and continue to talk in good faith about the options.

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Neil Gillespie is Contact Energy’s hydro development manager.

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