Advocacy for Renewable Energy in New Zealand (2011)

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It has been stated many times that New Zealand could run entirely on renewable energy due to our small population and the abundance of hydro, wind, solar, geo-thermal and tidal energy resources in the country. Often it has been touted by successive governments that NZ is one of the best countries in the world for using renewable energy and that NZ ranks third in the world behind Iceland and Norway. While this may be true, it is largely due to the fact that many hydro-electric dams were built long ago and they still continue to contribute a large portion of national energy needs to this day, but only in the form of electricity. New Zealand used to proudly proclaim that most of its energy came from renewable energy but this no longer true and the percentage has fallen drastically over the years. While the percentage of NZ electricity provided by renewables is about 55%, this is small in comparison to the 65 % of total energy that comes from hydrocarbons while only 35% comes from renewables. The bulk of the electricity being the same old hydro power with scant new capacity having been added over the years. The capacity that has been added has been in the form of a few wind farms and some coal/gas fired electrical plants but hydro-electric has always been the backbone of the electrical industry in NZ. According to the Energy Data File 2011 <ref></ref>, the total share of renewable energy used in NZ has varied little since 1974 and has varied between 28% and 38% throughout that time period. These statistics have little to do with new capacity and much more to do with reliance on those very same hydro schemes built long ago. In other words, there has been little movement over that time period to add new renewable capacity and a growing reliance on natural gas, coal and imported oil above all.


Currently the world is faced with some very large problems that we will need to overcome in the very near future and renewable energy is part of the answer to some of the biggest problems we face. Among those are climate change and peak hydrocarbon energy. Climate change is a well known issue and is related to our consumption of hydrocarbons while peak hydrocarbons relates to dwindling sources of oil, natural gas and eventually, coal. Each of these issues is in itself important enough that it should generate a change in direction in order to deal with the problem. However, currently in NZ the focus has remained on business as usual and little is being done to transition from and economy based on hydrocarbons to an economy based on renewable energy. One other issue that will not be covered in this WIKI is that since NZ is so dependant upon hydro for its electricity, it runs the risk of shortfalls during years with less than average precipitation. In the predicted climate change scenario, the eastern side of the country is likely to become more dry, while the west is to become more wet. This is problematic since most of the hydro schemes are on the eastern side of the country. What is at stake if we do not transition to renewable energy?

Climate Change

Firstly let us look briefly at the climate change issue and then at the energy issue. According to the IPCC <ref></ref> and scientific groups world-wide, climate change will mean wide spread change to eco-systems, agriculture, economies and societies all over the planet. For some, it may mean better weather but for most it will mean population displacement, famine, drought, disease and war. According to James Hansen <ref></ref>, we need to act now to reduce atmospheric carbon to below 350 parts per million in order to head off polar warming, massive ice melt and related catastrophic changes to the Earth’s climate systems. Furthermore, NZ is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol and has emissions commitments to meet that have already been surpassed and without renewable energy there is no way these commitments can be met. The current version of the NZ Energy Policy <ref></ref> actually says or does little to combat these trends and in fact puts more emphasis on hydrocarbon fuels rather than moving away from them.

Hubbert Peak Oil graph representing the projected production of oil. <ref></ref>

Peak Hydrocarbons

The second issue is that of peak hydrocarbons <ref></ref> <ref></ref> <ref></ref>. This is an issue that was first raised in 1956 when King Hubbard predicted that US domestic oil production would peak in the 1970’s and that after that the nation would need to rely on imports to supply its need. As with the question of climate change, many denied his scientifically based assertions. Most of the deniers were in fact economists and denial was at least in part required to maintain that status quo, stability and profitability. At the foundation of the issue is the fact that we live in a finite world, therefore have limited quantities of all resources and thus we cannot have infinite growth. The economic and political viewpoint has always been one of continued and infinite economic growth. However, it is not possible to grow past the limitations of resource bases and therefore, economies that continue to follow the myth of infinite growth based on finite resources will stumble and eventually fall. There is much tangible proof to show that the world is at or nearing peak hydrocarbon energy as it is all around us from the prices we pay for commodities, food and transport to the greatly increased costs and risks involved with finding and extracting new hydrocarbon discoveries and even extending to conflicts based on control of resources.

Historic population and oil use <ref></ref>
Historic debt levels, currently sky rocketing, in part due to high cost of energy related to decreased abundance. <ref></ref>


The eventual depletion of hydrocarbon fuel resources threatens every part of society and economics as energy is the foundation of these institutions. The vast majority of our industry, transport, communications and agriculture are only made possible thanks to hydrocarbons and without these resources or suitable renewable substitutes, our economies, societies and populations will be at great risk of collapse. As an example, it is estimated that for every 1 calorie of food we eat it takes about 10 calories of oil to produce that food.<ref></ref> Therefore, without the energy resources, our modern lifestyles and high standards of living cease to exist and we revert to pre-industrial revolution living standards and furthermore, our ability to feed the world is drastically reduced and populations are likely to collapse. The current global financial crisis is also related in part to the elevated costs of energy. As global industry has had to pay more for these resources, profitability has decreased and in turn GPD and the ability to repay debts has suffered as well. In the future, the price of hydrocarbons will continue to increase as well as the costs for all commodities that require energy.. meaning pretty much everything. Therefore, the longer we sit an wait to take action, the more costly and difficult it will be to build the infrastructure needed to power the future.

So where does this leave us?

According to the Hirsch Report to the US D.O.E. in 2005,<ref></ref>

"The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."

In light of these rather large and eminent issues, it is logical that it is in the best interest of all that we start the transition to an economy based on renewable resources rather than waiting until we have exhausted non-renewables. As stated earlier, in NZ, we are lucky to have a small population, with abundant renewable resources. Why then, if we have all of these renewable resources, have we done so little apart from hydro-electric schemes that were build many years ago? Why have we sat still while other nations are now racing to implement renewable energy schemes? The answer to these questions is not a single answer but several, and in part is related to issues including economics, legislation, and public and private interests.




Energy related legislation

Private Interests

Private Interests

Public Interests

Public Interests


It is in the best long term interest of the nation economically and environmentally to move forward with renewable energy in order to transition before reaching the point of no return. Given that the current government and political environment is based in "Business as usual", there is no action in this direction, only politically motivated sound bites. What is needed is a revolution in thinking and a switch from thinking of only short term gains to one where we are equally concerned with the long term situation.

A change in thinking is a very difficult thing to achieve as it entails re-programming years of conditioning across all levels of society, industry and the political system. Over the years we have been collectively educated by propaganda based in the mentality of short term gains and thus, long term sustainable and environmental thinking has been largely stigmatized in the main stream. In order to educate the masses so that the consensus view will be for transition and sustainability, the views must be embraced by government and then passed on to the people via public announcements, media and the education system. Furthermore, the legislation should be changed in order to re-direct industry and refocus development. If we want to make these changes, actions must be taken from the top down approach.

However, the current political environment is in no way sympathetic to such views, so no such action will be taken while the status quo exists. Thus, the concerned public must organise in order to advance this debate and force political change. This has been an on-going battle for many years and those who are pro renewable and sustainable are still a minority but growing in numbers and voice. The change will come when critical mass is reached and the masses vote for and demand change. So long as the minority is the group looking to the future and the majority is interested in the short term or worse yet, apathetic, there will be no change. The simple fact of the matter is that change must come at some point, either before hand, giving time to adapt, or by force of nature. The question now is will the movement reach critical mass before the laws of nature push us?

If and when we do adopt a common national view to transition to renewable energy, there are many actions that can be taken in order to make progress. A carbon price or tax that is not subject to loopholes could help to make hydrocarbons more expensive than renewables, therefore providing an economic case to begin the mass construction of the new infrastructure required. The government could mandate that its state owned energy companies place renewables as a high priority to national energy security. The government could reduce barriers to the market to allow smaller, more innovative firms to help develop the industry and add to the diversity of source. Government funding could be increased to promote new renewable energy projects within new and existing companies. The energy sector should diversify so that it does not rely so much on solely hydro power, thus increasing the penetration of technologies like wind and solar energy and lessening the need for new hydro plants.

Furthermore, it should be remembered that to transition to renewable energy will create many thousands of jobs as skilled people will be needed in order to design, plan, construct, run and maintain the new infrastructure. This is a very good economic argument that all too often gets brushed aside. Furthermore, the ability of this nation to even have an economy or industry and to maintain social cohesion in the future is dependent upon the existence of there being an energy supply. The current supplies of hydrocarbons will dwindle and our current hydro-power is not enough to meet our needs after that happens, so, the only way forward is to transition to renewables. A lot is riding on it!

Perhaps most importantly, this should all take place to begin the transition in the now, while our fuel and commodities are still relatively inexpensive, because the longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult it becomes to make it happen. Doing it now will provide jobs, economic movement and future energy security. So why wait?