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About face…on the road to the Lammermoors

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In December I wrote a post decrying the proposed windfarm on the Lammermoors above Ranfurly. I talked of the visual pollution that would result from erecting 170+ wind turbines in a place that is relatively visually pristine. I commented on the need to clutter the landscape with windfarms, when other measures, such as active promotion of tidal and solar generation could take their place.

Then I saw An Inconvenient Truth and began to realize how critical, complex, and global the issues for the environment and the planet really are, a problem for which we are individually and severally liable. I began to think about matters from a different angle.

Shortly afterwards a letter arrived from Jeanette Fitzsimons, outlining the Green Party perspective. It was pragmatic and realistic, and a nagging disquiet with my stated position grew. I have spent the last few months reading around the subject and trying to form a more objective opinion. I think I am there now.

There are several separate but congruent threads here. Let me take each of them in turn.

Several years ago I spent the best part of a week in the Mackenzie Basin, photographing the landscape between Tekapo and Twizel. It is an extraordinarily beautiful landscape, a pared-down, aesthetically spare place whose openness is at once refreshing, at once challenging. Visually complex mountain ranges ring a vast, wide-open series of plains. And across them stroll dams, canals and transmission towers. As I looked at the effect of man’s handiwork, the construction of an intricate framework of hydro generation, I realized that I was in awe at the scale of what I saw. I spent a morning in the control centre at Twizel and learned how complex the process of controlling this framework is. From Tekapo A to Waitaki, the flows are continually being balanced. Human needs, the maintenance of the resource and, of course, generation demands, are all taken into account.

Some months later, standing in the small visitors’ centre at Otematata, I looked out over the remains of the once-bustling hydro village and thought about the achievement of Max Smith, the engineer who oversaw the development of the scheme. I could see the boldness of the dream drawn up in a time when governments had the courage and moral mandate to put them into action. For the first time I began to appreciate the structural changes made to the landscape. As I looked, I thought about the way in which the landscape had integrated these works into its persona. And I marvelled at what had been achieved.

I remember a conversation at the time, with a fellow photographer, on the subject of transmission lines and towers. She expressed her disgust at the way that they desecrate the visual landscape, and went on to say how much she detested the Mackenzie Basin hydro scheme, how she found it ugly and an eyesore. I pointed out that I was not so troubled. Transmission towers are a part of our landscape, I postulated, and have their own intrinsic beauty.

For a long time in my landscape photography classes, I have related the experience of being out with a group of camera club photographers, and stopping one afternoon to photograph late light on a landscape in North Canterbury, which contained these towers. Once out of the bus, most of the group packed their equipment and walked more than a kilometre across the field, in order to be able to avoid getting the pylons in their shot, to make photographs which attempted to deny the existence of the hand of Man, to pretend he had never been there and had had no impact upon it. I found the experience of watching them one packed with irony. Later that day they would go home and turn on their jugs, lights and television sets. Where did they imagine the electricity came from, and how it got there?

I have always thought the transmission towers which march across the landscape like tripods from The War of the Worlds have their own charm, and I have no problem including them in any photograph I make. In a strange but surreal way they give any landscape photograph a sense of scale and impart perspective, on variety of levels. The proportions of the picture space they occupy define left-right/up-down, and also near-far. But there are other layers. The towers also add an historical dimension, a sense of Time. They also allude to the relationship between the Natural and Human. There is an interface here which a photographer can explore.

Similarly I am fascinated by what has happened with the McKenzie Basin hydro scheme. I am intrigued by the way that the landscape has moved in and covered up the scars, by the way in which manmade and natural have integrated and joined hands. I sense a symbiosis in what is before me that is entirely acceptable and indeed wonderful. Moreover the structure of the scheme seems to me to have a gentle rhythm that mimics the rhythm of the land, which moves in accord with it rather than against it. There seems to be something somehow Time-less about it, something non-invasive and fitting.

I am sure you are already seeing the inconsistency in my comments of last November. In my defence, weak though it is, I would say that that experience had faded into the background, and that it has only been in the last six weeks, as I have looked at the issues from every angle I could, that it has resurfaced, to influence my position and remind me of how I once felt. And realise I still do.

When I recalled my experience of the Mackenzie Basin and held it up to the light of my feelings about the Lammermoor windfarm, the inconsistency struck me immediately. How could I on the one hand feel OK about what had been done in the Mackenzie, and apply a quite different set of criteria to this? I have spent a lot of time considering this and wondering how to elucidate the change in my position.

So to the Lammermoors.

I went up again into the hills at the bottom of the valley a little over a week ago and looked across the rambling countryside, down towards Lawrence. It is an amazing landscape, a succession of gentle contours that flow and slide and interlock. But it is not pristine. It is not a wilderness in the pure sense. Grazing, farming and human presence have combined to alter it appreciably. Transmission lines stomp across the distant horizon. Fences and roads segment the vista. It would be well-nigh impossible to photograph it in a way that pretends it is a virgin wilderness. However, in my opinion, the attraction of the place lies not in the myth of an unspoiled landscape, but in the ability of a visitor to be alone. It is the remoteness of the area that is its chief drawcard. Would a windfarm change that, and to what extent?

Solitude, the ability to experience lebensraum, is the gift the Lammermoors really offer and which draws visitors. Obviously a windfarm will draw the curious and fascinated. To what extent that will impact on the landscape I cannot say. I am not aware of any study on the matter.

The work of the Romantic painters of the early 19th century (Constable, Turner et al) shows this human/natural interface, this idea of the sublime and of man in harmony with his environment. A further study of the first artists to paint New Zealand (Gully, Chevalier et al) will show this same ethos. Their painterly views frequently contain some element of the human; a building, farmhouse or boat dominated by a grand landscape. Nature is given its rightful ascendancy by occupying the lion’s share of the picture space. Human works are made small and insignificant. It is a pictorial tradition which came out to this country with our European ancestors and which has remained, become rooted in our national psyche. We want to feel that ours is a naturally pristine and uncluttered environment and that we can go out and enjoy that solitude when we wish. Perhaps this is why there has been so much opposition to the project. The subtext here is that living in tune with Nature is a basic human need.

As I looked across the Lammermoors, I visualised a throng of white towers, their propellers turning lazily, responding to the wind, and realised this was something I could live with, indeed something I would like to see. The idea of working with Nature in a co-operative and non-threatening, non-destructive way, seemed to reflect a harmony that is in tune with it. And underscore the Romantic thread that underpins much of my work.

You can see my thinking has changed.

I revisited my artist’s statement to reconsider what I had written and to see if it still held sway. It did. Beauty and Nature were still leitmotiven for me, cornerstones of my work. In my progress through the atua (the Maori Gods), I had found a new layer of understanding to explore. If Tawhirimatea, the God of the Winds and the focus of my work in the Maniototo, is a lesson in change and adaptation, then Tangaroa, the god of the sea and lakes, is a lesson in Abundance, with its shoals of understandings, with its focus on ebb and flow, and natural flow. How curious that there should be the consideration of this aspect of Beauty. Somehow the windfarms and the hydro schemes seem to fit into this matrix.

If Art is the concrete expression of the ethos of a society, then, in an age where the environment is the major issue, looking at these constructions and considering their relationship to the Natural seems entirely fitting.

There can be no question. As a species, and as a planet, we are in trouble. An Inconvenient Truth (AIT) makes that plain. Each and every one of us is accountable. Each time we visit that household store and buy another heater or more powerful light bulbs or put gasoline in our car, we add to the pressure on the available energy resource. We all know this, but none of us wants to be cold, to go without energy when we want it. The energy resources of this planet, a closed loop, are finite. Only the sun adds to the equation. But that is of itself finite. Only so much energy is available, even from that source. There is no thermostat on the sun. So we need to plan for an upper limit on what that can provide. It is a question of balance, and a lesson available to us from long ago.

Balance is a theme in much mediaeval literature. The French word mésure, the German mâze, all contain a lesson on balance or moderation. The protagonist in mediaeval morality stories leans towards excess and tragedy follows. So for us today. We have allowed our energy wants to exceed our needs, have squandered the easy (and most harmful) forms of energy and the environment is out of balance. The more we look, the more horror stories there are. Pollution in the oilfields of Nigeria; the disaster in the black tar sands in Canada; nuclear pollution in Kazakhstan; few corners of the planet have been left unscathed. We have been lucky in New Zealand. We have no nuclear power stations and hence no dangerous waste to dispose of; our few oil wells have a minimal environmental impact. Our power generation in this country comes mostly from renewable resources. As it should do. If AIT is to be believed, and there seems little evidence to doubt it, then we are staring into the Abyss of Environmental Catastrophe. We may already be too late.

We need to turn to technologies that both are sustainable and non-destructive. We must embrace energy resources that meet our needs but which have a minimal impact on both our local and global environment. That requires us to turn from ecological tribalism to ecological globalism, to turn from a narrow focus on the perceived needs of Self (self/family/nation) to those of Other (region/hemisphere/globe). We need to lower our energy impact as quickly as possible. And that involves some sacrifices, in this case aesthetic ones. Kaitiakitanga, guardianship of the environment, requires effort from all of us. To my mind, green energy, which may or may not have a significant visual footprint, is infinitely preferable to generation technologies which impact as severely as those that have been used in the past and which are still impacting.

As I thought the issue over I realised that while to some they might be eyesores, windfarms offer a short-term solution that is both sustainable and has a minimal ecological footprint. Furthermore they have a short lifespan (around 20 years), so combined with a building period of 5 years, that is 25 years they will be there. After that the option to replace gives a total of 50 years, and who knows what technologies will be available then (I am told the first fusion reactor begins construction in France this year). Oil will almost certainly have run out by then. Given the damage we have done to our environment by the use of oil and oil-based products, for which we are all liable and accountable, then to berate something as relatively benign as wind power is to be guilty of inconsistency. Windfarms, while they may be of dubious visual value, at least do not damage the macro-environment.

The New Zealand government has decreed that all new power generation must be from renewable and sustainable resources, a bold move (albeit a late one) that really cannot be argued against, and with which I completely agree. There are still strategies the government could put into place to encourage micro-sustainability) subsidies for solar panels, small wind turbines. I am not convinced that good sense will prevail over political exigencies, but at the moment it is critical to balance increased energy demands with the need to consider environmental concerns. Furthermore, blaming the utilities is rather like shooting the messenger. It is governments, elected representatives, who make policy, not the utilities charged with carrying them out. If we disagree with what they are proposing, it is up to each of us to make representations. It is an axiom that we get the government we deserve.

For that reason, and for the reasons detailed above, as I thought about it, I found that my initial position on windfarms in general, and that of the Lammermoors in particular, had changed. The future is now, and trying to hold the clock back will only increase the terrible pressures on the environment and on our future as a species.

We live in interesting times, times of our own making.

4 Responses

  1. Peregrina says:

    Hi, Tony,

    I wasn’t surprised to find this post. You indicated in your introduction to Jeanette Fitzsimon’s letter that you were rethinking your position. It takes a degree of courage to announce publicly “I was wrong”, but that’s something you’re not afraid of doing. Those of us who read your blog appreciate it.

    Instead of rushing to the keyboard I’d intended sitting quietly for a week or so to see what comments other people might make. However, I’ve been spurred into posting my two cents’ worth by another case of what Pete McGregor would probably call synchronicity, although I tend to call it coincidence. Whatever.

    Here’s why I changed my mind. You put this post up on Monday afternoon. That very morning, catching up on the Listener of Feb 24th that I’d missed reading earlier, I’d come across two Letters to the Editor on the subject of Project Hayes: one by Anton Oliver, the other by Jim Childerstone. Then this morning, on its front page, The Press carried the news that a report commissioned by the Central Otago District Council recommends that Project Hayes should not be given resource consent. “…. the negative impacts locally of Meridian Energy’s 176-turbine project outweighed the national benefits…”

    Three references to Project Hayes in three days – now how could I resist that?

    I want to say that I mostly agree with you. I can also follow your reasons for changing your mind. However, there are a couple of things I don’t agree with. I’ve already said plenty in the three responses I made to Jeanette Fitzsimon’s letter, so I won’t repeat what I said there except for restating that I’m against Project Hayes. (And why is it called “Project Hayes”? I ask. Why not the more truthful “Project Lammermoors”? Then the whole country could locate the area without further explanation.)

    Like Anton Oliver, Jim Childerstone, Dr Morgan Williams (the just-retired Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment) – and you and Jeanette Fitzsimons – I’m in favour of small windfarms close to the communities they supply. (Germany and Denmark have those.) I can see that there is a need to generate more electricity. I also understand that responding to climate change, something which is suddenly occupying our collective consciousness, requires generation from renewable resources. But is Project Hayes (and the subsequent projects for which it may set a precedent) the only way? Have we really left it too late to build less obtrusive alternatives?

    Both the Listener letters make very good arguments for not going ahead with this massive windfarm on a culturally significant landscape. (Anton Oliver says that, at 630 MW, it could prove to be the world’s largest wind factory.) Dr Morgan Williams and his investigative team also have something to say about siting windfarms on significant landscapes. [See footnote.]

    Regarding today’s news in the Press: it doesn’t give me a great deal of hope because Central Otago District Council is not bound by its planner’s recommendation. Also, in what is apparently an unusual move, the Government has made a submission in favour of Project Hayes. Possibly this was done before the Report was published, but maybe the recommendations in the Report would have made no difference anyway. (Am I sounding just a touch cynical?)

    Now for my second difference of opinion: the visual effect of this windfarm on the landscape of the Lammermoors. I don’t think it can be compared with the Mackenzie Basin hydro development. Of necessity, canals don’t stand above ground level. As for power pylons, they march across the landscape in a line, often a double one, but there’s still plenty of landscape that’s pylon-free. Anyway, they’re nowhere near as tall. I agree that pylons can have their own charm and I’ve seen images that portray this. I agree that windfarms can have charm and beauty – I’ve experienced it overseas as I travelled along a road that passed through one. But this was on rolling pasture-land and visible for only a short time, appearing suddenly and being quickly hidden as the road wound on through the hills. Project Hayes wind towers will be in an area covering 92 sq km. Because of their size they will be visible from a long way away.

    Last year The Press published an article by Debbie Jamieson, “Shifting Winds” , in the paper of 25-26 November. It contained some measurements. I’ve been doing some arithmetic .

    The top of the tower is 100m high. Christchurch Cathedral, to the top of the cross on the spire, is 63m high. Therefore the height of the tower is almost one-and-a-half times as high as the Cathedral. Then there are the three blades, each 60m long, so that at the top of their turn the whole construction will effectively be 160m high. That makes it fairly close to two-and-a-half times as high as the cross on top of the Cathedral spire. That’s a long way up! The base of the tower, which is 4.2m in diameter, will require 650 cubic metres of concrete to hold it in place. There are to be 176 towers, which I calculate will require a total of 110 880 cubic metres of concrete. That’s a lot of concrete!

    The towers are made in northern Europe and transported from there to their final position. (I guess this won’t involve air-miles, for which small mercy we should be thankful!) It will be a massive undertaking getting them from European factory to Central Otago location. We do make wind turbines here, but not to these dimensions, apparently.

    I’ve been looking at your images, Tony, and at others too, trying to visualise them with this windfarm in place. What will I see when I go down to Central Otago and look across the Lammermoors? I think that whereas in the Mackenzie Basin I still see the landforms as dominant, when I look across the Lammermoors it will be the wind towers and the roadways giving access to them which catch and hold my attention while the original landforms take second place. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

    So, after five years of construction we get 20 years of electricity which will be enough to provide power to about 260 000 homes. All that infrastructure for only 20 years’ supply? What then? Spend five years replacing them for another 20 years’ worth? Surely we could provide the same amount of generation more cheaply, and with less loss during transmission, from small windfarms close to communities – even if we don’t value preserving a significant landscape. And when these huge towers are finally taken out, what are we going to do with all that concrete?

    Time to climb down from my soapbox and put it away. This is probably four cents’ worth rather than two. I’ll shut up for a while to give someone else a chance!

    Regards,

    P.

    Footnote: See the report “Wind Power, People and Place”.
    http://www.pce.govt.nz/reports/allreports/1_877274_29_1.pdf For anyone interested in the impact of windfarms on people and place, it’s worth reading Chapter 8, which summarises the findings of the report and makes recommendations to both central and regional governments. Chapter 8.2.2, “Localised impacts to valued landscapes and communities”, is relevant to Project Hayes.

  2. mary jo says:

    I think I see a Pushmepullyou. Look! Over there, just under the windmill.

  3. Tony Bridge says:

    Thanks, both of you, for your comments. I am glad that you both took the time to comment. It is easy to sit back and say nothing, or to go ad hominem, and make an obscure reference. Many are afraid to say anything, or indeed hope that someone else will deal with the problem, or that it will go away. Hence the axiom: we get the government we deserve. I wonder how many of us are willing to put wider concerns beyond our own, explore the options offered by the various political parties and then offer our support to make a difference. If we support the Greens stance on local area generation, then we can at the least vote for them, at best sign up and help. If we choose to do nothing, then we cannot wail if we get a substandard government.
    I read the report in the ODT yesterday, in which the planner for the District Council opposes the scheme. I also read the recently-released report on the scheme. It is a large document, and one I am sure is freely available, should you wish to read it. I believe it has been sent out to everyone who made a submission. What is intersting is an analysis of the submissions. As I read it, these fall into three groups;
    -fors, which includes the farmers on whose land the farm will be sited, the aluminum smelter company, Trustpower, Contact energy, etc ( naturally),
    -fors with concerns which are a precondition of assent,
    -and lastly the againsts.
    We have been told that assents are greater than againsts. This is strictly true, but I suspect that were we to add the yes-but-only-if category to the againsts, there would be more concerned submissions than pure assents.
    To reiterate what I have been saying:
    I can live with the windfarm project as it stands, on the basis that we have ourselves as a species in a cleft stick, and that it is the lesser of several evils. I can live with the idea of it as a short-term solution to protracted government procrastination and poor planning. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlines this need to do something, and quickly.
    I agree with you, P, re the fact that local generation (a la Greens) is infinitely preferable, and surely possible.
    So are we all willing to turn our heaters off to save power at the expense of our comfort? The answer is: of course not.Human beings all want creature comforts. More people means more demand for electricity. Where is that to come from, and waht is each of us doing about it?
    P: I have just read the document you refer to above, including the recommendations in Chapter 8. There is little for me to disagree with in that.
    The Chinese curse will only hold sawy as long as we, both individually and severally, allow it.

  4. Peregrina says:

    Well, Tony, I’ve been quiet for 12 days, waiting in hope for some response, and no-one has contributed as much as a whisper, apart from Mary Jo. [M J: Maybe we could ask Dr Doolittle to tell us what the Pushmepullyou thinks about the towers – good for hide-and-seek, perhaps?] They say silence means assent – but who are all those readers that we know are out there assenting with – you or me? Or horrors! Maybe nobody cares! So out comes my soapbox again.

    I want to pick up on something you’ve implied: that without Project Hayes we’d all have to be willing to turn off our heaters to save power. We wouldn’t, of course, if smaller windfarms were established, and neither would we be expected to. Keeping warm during cold weather is a health issue. What we’re not willing to do is reduce wastage, much of which contributes nothing to our comfort.

    Government over the last decade or two has given very little lead in promoting electricity conservation, except when the national supply is threatened as it was few winters ago when the hydro lakes were very low. We reduced our use sufficiently to avoid power cuts (interestingly, with greater savings being made per head of population in the colder South Island than in the North). Probably some of us maintained that level of conservation and now have little slack with which to reduce our power consumption further without compromising genuine needs, but I suspect that most of us didn’t. It’s a great shame that, once the crisis was over, the Government didn’t continue vigorously to encourage us to keep on conserving.

    In my comment posted to Letter from Jeanette Fitzsimons I mentioned having heard part of a discussion on environmental matters on National Radio. The guest speaker made the point that a lot of people all doing a little can achieve real savings in energy. Try the link below to check out both small and – should you wish it and can afford it – large things you can do. Look at P.11 for the little things that will make a difference – things we can all do without real inconvenience or cost. Let’s start with switching our computer off at the wall as soon as we have finished with it for the time being.

    http://www.eeca.govt.nz/eeca-library/residential/brochure/getting-warmer-by-degrees-brochure-06.pdf

    Will this massive windfarm on the Lammermoors encourage us to avoid waste? Do we really need something this big, built at huge expense, and expected to provide electricity for only 20 years? Maybe it really is too late to find an alternative to this particular project, but if it is, I hope we’re not too late to find alternatives for the next large-scale one that is no doubt being planned.

    P.

    PS. I note that on 17th April the Environment Court declined an application to build a wind farm consisting of 37 turbines in the vicinity of the Te Waka Range, making the following statement:

    “Important as the issues of climate change and the use of renewable sources of energy unquestionably are, they cannot dominate all other values. The adverse effects of the proposal on what is undoubtedly an outstanding landscape, and its adverse effects on the relationship of Maori with this land and the values it has for them, clearly bring us to the conclusion that the tipping point in favour of other values has been reached.”

    Interesting! Not exactly the same situation as Project Hayes, and it is going to be appealed, but at least the value of an outstanding landscape is being recognised as something worth preserving.

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