By Alison Ballance
“We’re not really discussing whether climate change is occurring. We can see that it is. This is the next step, which is that it’s one thing to say ‘this is terrible, this is bad’ but it’s harder to think about what you might do instead. And we’ve picked on the wind project as a way of showing that local communities can make a difference.”
Craig Marshall, Chair, Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust
While Tony Abbott, Prime Minster of Australia, has been loudly railing against wind turbines and solar power in his country recently, the residents of Blueskin Bay, just north of Dunedin, can’t wait to have the blades of their own wind turbines turning on their skyline. The turbines will belong to community-owned Blueskin Energy Ltd, which has been developing the idea of a community wind farm for the past eight years.
Wind farm proposals are often cursed with NIMBY or ‘not in my backyard’ opposition but Blueskin Energy Ltd’s Scott Willis says the reverse is the case in Blueskin Bay.
“We actually want them in our front yard. Many years ago there was a student here doing some research into small wind and he asked the question ‘what would you say about wind turbines in your environment.’ And he got “I really wouldn’t like them if they’re owned by a big corporate’, and “I love them, I want to have them – if they’re owned by us’.”
An enthusiasm for locally-produced renewable electricity generation isn’t the only thing that sets the Blueskin Bay communities apart from many others.
Newly defined coastal hazard zones, for example, which identify low-lying areas that will be at risk from sea level rise, have Christchurch and Kapiti Coast residents up in arms, but the low-lying Blueskin Bay communities have decided that denial and inaction are not options, and instead they are actively planning what their future might look like as rising sea levels begin to threaten their houses.
The residents are part of the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust (BRCT), a group of concerned residents who were galvanised into action following severe floods in 2006 which isolated Waitati for several days.
“After the flood in Waitati in 2006 a small group of people got together and said ‘this is no good – we need to look after ourselves’,” says Purakanui resident Ross Johnston. “And as a result they started to do a number of things to support the sustainability of their community.”
Rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change are just some of many issues being discussed by the 1000-or-so households that are embraced by the BRCT. Energy literacy, warm well-insulated homes, community gardens and fruit trees, car-pooling and a desire for energy independence are also part of the community conversation.
“What would you do if we had another flood? But in the long term, what about energy resilience, what about the fact that we can’t continue to use resources the way we have. Should we consider continuing to live on the flat down there?” asks current BRCT Chair Craig Marshall. “Those are hard questions, and it’s not clear there are any obvious answers, but you should be starting to think about it anyway.”
Waitati resident Antony Deaker says that for him, as for many people, these conversations began in the playground as parents waited to collect kids after school. They expanded to become kitchen table conversations, and soon to public hall meetings. The Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust was formed in 2008, and it began a series of visioning and community engagement workshops, some of which involved Janet Stephenson and students from the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability.
“It’s an interesting community because it’s very varied and it’s open to new ideas,” says Craig Marshall. “One of the nice things about it is that people have strong views, and they do something about them. And that I think is the key thing about it – that people don’t just think about doing something, they actually do it.”
The most ambitious thing that the Blueskin Bay communities have done is to embark on a project to build three community-owned wind turbines. The Blueskin Energy project is being led by Scott Willis, and after years of planning Blueskin Energy Ltd has just signed an agreement with a local farmer to site the three turbines on top of Porteous Hill on the northern side of Blueskin Bay. The next step is to apply for resource consent. The turbines will be small, sub-megawatt turbines, and the key to the location is not just good amounts of quality wind but also close proximity to a substation which will allow the power produced to be easily fed into the national network. The three turbines will have a very small footprint on the ground and will not affect the day-to-day working of the farm
“This is one of the magical things about wind,” Says Scott. “Although it’s a costly development because you’ve got to build something up front it enables everything else to keep on going all around it, and it doesn’t cost through its lifetime because the wind is free of course.”
Originally the community wanted to produce and then use their own power, but eventually came to the realisation that with the way the electricity market is structured it made more sense to sell the power and then use the income from that to benefit the community.
The wind project will cost between five to six million dollars, and local resident and investment advisor Charles Abraham is planning to approach experienced investors to raise the capital required.
Community-owned renewable energy projects are common in the United Kingdom, where there are more than 5000, but rare in New Zealand. The only other community wind generator that I am aware of is Pioneer Generation in Central Otago, a community-owned organisation that has exclusive rights to generate, distribute and supply electricity to the wider Central Otago area. Pioneer Generation is just completing the 8-turbine Flat Hill wind farm at Bluff.
According to the New Zealand Wind Energy Association web site there are 19 wind farms either operating or under construction in New Zealand.
Many households in the Blueskin Bay area have already installed photovoltaic panels on the roofs and are selling the power back into the national grid.
Janet Stephenson from the University of Otago says the high uptake of solar in the Blueskin Bay area accounts for most of the solar installations in Otago, and that as prices for photovoltaic panels become more affordable rates of solar installation are rising rapidly nationwide.