Of windmills, and those who mind

Would-be wind farmer Meridian Energy has a problem, its opponents have a point, and there’s an unanswered question that challenges us all

Five kilometers west of Martinborough, I’m sitting in my car, looking across the valley at Nga Waka o Kupe — Kupe’s Canoes.

Both my back and front yards are a mite less salubrious than Deborah Coddington’s. But I’m not a far distant neighbour.

Meridian wants to put 45 windmills on the hills by Coddington’s vineyard home, on the north side of Martinborough. There is, as yet, no resource consent application, but Meridian’s early scoping work has local environmental lobby group Pure Martinborough up in arms. They have vowed to “fight it through every court in the land”; meanwhile, Deborah’s using her media clout.

She’s in stellar company. Asked by The Nation if he was a ‘nimby’, Project Hayes objector Grahame Sydney was unabashed about it, as is Coddington herself. Of course I am, he said, we all should be. Environmental responsibility starts in our own back yards; if we don’t stand up to protect them, no one else is going to.

Down in Martinborough this morning. I knew roughly where the canoes would be, and what I was looking for; still, I drove about hunting for them through the town and round its outskirts for a solid half hour with this phrase of Deborah’s in my head: “they object to the size, proximity to town, and the ridge chosen, which is clearly visible from nearly everywhere in and around Martinborough ”.

Finally, feeling mighty sheepish, I turned into the information centre, where I enjoyed an interesting exchange:

Er … I was wanting to find the Kupe’s Canoes. Can you tell me which hills they are?
Ooh, I don’t know, said the first woman on the desk. And, turning to the other: Can you see them from round here?
I’ve actually tried that myself, said the second, and I can’t find
them …

We agreed I might have more luck if I backtracked, to higher ground — so here I am, and there they are.

On the skyline, just to the right of the third canoe, Genesis’ seven little Hau Nui mills are spinning. In fact, Hau Nui is 21 kilometers out of town, but from this vantage point, it’s all part of the same vista. Immediately to the left of the first canoe is Meridian’s preferred site: not on the canoes, not in front of them, but the low rumpled hills next door.

Pure Martinborough isn’t opposed to Wairarapa wind farming, they just want it somewhere else. My first response to this was succinct. Martinborough’s character and environment face bigger threats than a few windmills, but I doubt they’re denying that either, with a Copenhagen negotiator on board.

They cite the construction inconvenience, from trucking stuff through the sleepy village. Nga Waka o Kupe is an iconic brand for several local winemakers; not surprisingly though, that’s getting less push in the debate than the underlying Maori legend and history. South Wairarapa mayor Adrienne Staples is backing the objections, on the record as saying she doesn’t think this ridge is an appropriate place for a wind farm, being too close to town, and part of the fabric of the town.

And above all I agree with Pure Martinborough, we should always ask the question, and test it loud and long: do we need to sacrifice this landscape to this purpose? Are there better ways of doing it?

But it is not a view shared by all locals. A UMR telephone survey commissioned by Meridian showed 25% ‘strongly opposed’ to the wind farm, 30% ‘somewhat opposed but wanting more information’, 9% ‘in favour’, 33% ‘somewhat supportive but wanting more information’. The campaigners say the questions were biased.

I’d better declare myself: I’ve never seen a skyline I didn’t feel was dignified and improved by windmills. If I could get consent and a lot of money, I would have one (not 45) in my back yard. I bet I know what some of those drivers were doing, snapped the other week failing to keep left in the Woodville gorge: they were in thrall of the gorgeous nonchalant Te Apiti giants, that loom over the cliffs.

But watching Kupe’s Canoes, as they pass in and out of nor’west squalls today, I think: this is not the most spectacular skyline in the world, or the most picturesque Wairarapa destination, but these flat brown hills have a quiet mana about them. No, I would not want to see these violated. There will be other spots for wind farming, in this mistral-type climate where gales rattle your back fillings loose.

And yet, I remain about where I was before: an unsurveyed ‘somewhat supportive but wanting more information’, about why, exactly, it would be culturally so egregious to use the neighbouring hills proposed (not the canoes), and the viability (or not) of other locations.

Embattled Meridian, perennially cast as bully and despoiler, is going quietly, saying they’ve put the work on hold, pending a public consultation exercise on what landscapes make Wairarapa special, and how they should be recognised and managed. They scored a small savvy PR point on the future of the iconic, much-loved, Brooklyn turbine, which Wellingtonians stood up to defend, and which will be repaired. But you get the feeling on this one, Pure Martinborough is going to win.

Meridian faces the same challenge wherever it goes these days — Project Aqua, Project Hayes, Mokihinui, Makara West Wind, Martinborough. Renewable energy isn’t always cost-effective, that’s highly circumstance-dependent, and it’s never cost-free. In all its forms, it affects a non-renewable piece of the environment: a tidal sea bed, a river valley, a skyline. Unless our insatiable energy demand is also changed, or managed, a simple switch to renewable sources will end up no more sustainable than the other kind.

And that’s the challenge for all of us, who oppose this kind of development, for whatever reason, wherever it may be: if we don’t want to wear that environmental cost, what other trade offs will we make instead?

Writing in the Listener, Coddington points to James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory and a father of the green movement, who opposes large scale industrial wind farming. Yes, he does. He supports nuclear power, instead, and his opposition to “great industrial wind turbines” crystallised, it seems, in defence of his own Westcountry back yard.