You've Got the Power!  (Or Will Have...)


Energy Options

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.

- H G Wells

I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun's energy...
If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.

- Sir George Porter

Windmills of Banning Pass, near Palm Springs, California, United States (N 33°57' W 116°42')
This landscape studded with wind turbines has become a classic sight in the United States and in northern Europe.
Germany is the world leader in the use of wind power. The use of wind energy, although still marginal in the world energy balance sheet
(its power exceeded 16,600 megawatts in 2001), underwent exceptional growth in the last three years of the 20th century.
Global wind power is expected to have exceeded 20,000 megawatts in 2002.
Renewable and nonpolluting, windmill energy uses the most modern methods developed by the aeronautics industry.
Source: from Earth from Above by the incomparable photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand

For years, New Zealand has enjoyed some of the lowest power prices in the developed world. Many people believe this was due to the large hydro-electricity schemes developed between the 1940s and 1970s.  The truth is, however, that the huge Maui gas field off the coast of Taranaki has set the benchmark for New Zealand's electricity prices for most of the last 30 years.  Today, Maui gas accounts for up to 25% of our electricity generation - but now it's running out.  By 2010 it is expected to be all but exhausted.  With New Zealand's economy growing and an increasing demand for power supply, we need to make some tough decisions now to avoid an energy supply "gap" that could disrupt our economy and our way of life.

New Zealand's energy solution is not a simple one.  The big issue is security of supply.  Solving the problem is a balancing act: security versus price versus the environment.  What are our energy options?  How do they affect our environment?  How will they affect the price of our power bills?  How much can we rely on them for our power supply?  These are just some of the questions we need to find answers to, to ensure power shortages are not the way of the future.  Please join the debate and try your hand at balancing our energy needs to help determine our energy future - it's all about positive energy.


How does it affect me?

In the short term, it doesn't.  However, it is inevitable that power prices will increase as New Zealand makes the investments needed to replace Maui.  You can offset some of these right now, by using some easy, power saving tips in your own home.  It's a good habit to get into.  By making yourself aware of the issues at stake, you are also taking part in the debate that we all need to have: the future of New Zealand's energy.

Meanwhile, let's be clear - there is no threat to gas for cooking, hot water, and heating, which use only a tiny fraction of the gas that currently supplies New Zealand's energy supply needs.


What do I need to do?

Think about and engage with the issues.  New Zealand's energy situation is a dynamic, changing one and we need to understand what our options are and how each one will affect our overall energy future.  It's important that we don't close off options that could ensure us a secure electricity supply, at reasonable cost to consumers and to the environment.  To ensure that we consider the options together, we need as a country to understand the trade-offs that any new electricity supply options will inevitably require.


Why are we telling you this?

Simple.  This is an issue that affects all New Zealanders and it's not going away.  A quarter of New Zealand's electricity is a big chunk to lose and with the absence of new cheap hydro or gas alternatives and the lead times required to secure new, reliable electricity sources, we have just a couple of years to make some difficult choices.  New Zealand has plenty of energy options.  As a country, we need to weigh up the costs and advantages of each option against the cost to jobs and quality of life if we don't maintain a reliable power supply.


The environmental impact of power generation comes in many forms.  For some technologies the impacts are predominantly local: discharges into rivers, emissions from power station stacks, or the noise and alteration or spoiling of the landscape associated with, say, an opencast coal mine or the development of a major hydro scheme.  Other impacts are more widespread.  Global warming is the ultimate example of an energy technology having local benefits and global costs.  The distribution of such impacts is also likely to be highly variable.  Some people may suffer significant direct impacts (for example. Bangladeshis suffering increased flooding, or farmers in parts of Africa who suffer increased drought), whilst others may appear to enjoy a "better" climate, even if native plants and animals start to change.

Many environmental impacts are intangible and difficult to predict.  For example, global warming may exacerbate water disputes between countries in politically volatile areas of the Middle East and Africa, and cause increased economic migration from peoples out of developing countries to more developed ones.  There are no easy answers.

New Zealand Is Lucky

We have a number of different options to help fill our energy gap over the next couple of decades.  Unfortunately, each of them comes with its own set of very different pros and cons.


New Zealand has been blessed with many natural resources, not least of which are the major lakes and rivers which have been harnessed to provide hydro power.  Large scale developments last century mean that hydro now accounts for between 60 and 70% of total generation.

The Pros

bulletClean and relatively abundant source of electricity
bulletAlready supplies 60 - 70% of our needs
bulletProduces no greenhouse gases
bulletNZ has a wide range of potential sites, large and small
bulletPositive public perception of existing hydro plant and renewable energy generally
bulletProvides baseload generation - as long as it keeps raining

The Cons

bulletStrong and growing opposition to environmental impact of new big hydro schemes
bulletReliant on weather - production can vary greatly from year to year
bulletMany new schemes would struggle to make electricity at competitive prices
bulletMost of best sites already used or off-limits
bulletLow hydro storage capacity in NZ
bulletWater becoming an increasingly scarce and expensive resource


New Zealand has two gas options: domestic natural gas from fields like Maui and Pohokura and imported Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).  The electricity generation characteristics of both are identical, as are most of their pros and cons.

The Pros

bulletSignificant untapped domestic resources known to exist
bulletProven generation technology increasingly efficient
bulletImportant existing source of electricity - producing up to 25% of total electricity, more during hydro shortages
bulletRelatively short power station construction times
bulletRelatively minor visual and physical impact
bulletLiquefied Natural Gas abundant on world market should local supplies run low
bulletGas-powered plants can run 24/7 - perfect for security of supply
bulletProduces relatively lower cost electricity than most renewable energy alternatives
bulletPlants can be built close to source of demand - reducing costs of upgrading the national grid

The Cons

bulletGreenhouse gas emissions add to global warming - although much less so than coal
bulletRange of possible future costs for greenhouse gas emissions is very large
bulletGas costs rising - Maui gas was very cheap by world standards - new domestic supplies already cost significantly more
bulletLocal gas supplies uncertain - timing and size of local discoveries unknown, especially because of relative lack of new exploration in NZ
bulletImported Liquefied Natural Gas would expose New Zealand electricity to fluctuations in world gas prices and foreign exchange rates

The only significant environmental impact from gas is the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is emitted.  Modern combined-cycle gas fired power stations emit 2½ times less CO2 than a modern coal-fired power station.


New Zealand has copious quantities of coal - equivalent to 30 Maui fields - which, if it were exploited, could serve New Zealand's needs for many decades.

The Pros

bulletPlentiful local supply
bulletAbundant overseas supplies
bulletCompetitive with other new generation options if low or no carbon tax
bulletReliable and available for baseload generation to ensure security of supply
bulletRelatively clean for local air quality, if using latest technology

The Cons

bulletProduces greenhouse gases
bulletExpensive source of electricity if high carbon tax
bulletRange of possible future costs for greenhouse gas emissions is very large
bulletLargest deposits of domestic coal located far from the centres of demand for electricity - costly to transport the coal or the electricity
bulletCoal-fired power stations are expensive to build - a lot of money to waste if a significant new gas field is found which makes New Zealand's coal capability redundant


Although there is plenty of wind in New Zealand, it also needs to be physically accessible, located close to the National Grid and not too environmentally invasive.  Additionally, wind power fluctuates with wind speeds, so it needs to work as a complement to more reliable energy sources, rather than as a stand-alone.

Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, near Copenhagen, Denmark (55°40' N, 12°38' E)
Since late 2000, the world’s largest offshore wind farm to date has stood in the Øresund strait, which separates Denmark from Sweden.
Its 20 turbines, each equipped with a rotor 250 feet (76 m) in diameter, standing 210 feet (64 m) above the water,
form an arc with a length of 2.1 miles (3.4 km).  With 40 mega-watts of power, the farm produces 3% of the electricity consumption of Copenhagen.
Source: from Earth from Above by the incomparable photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The Pros

bulletNon air-polluting
bulletLarge, identified potential
bulletWell-suited to NZ conditions - abundant wind
bulletComplementary with hydro
bulletTechnology improvements should lower costs, making some wind increasingly competitive as electricity prices rise

The Cons

bulletExpensive electricity at most identified sites, using current technology
bulletMajor cost to transport power from remote site to National Grid - large scale wind development would require significant new investment in the National Grid
bulletVisual intrusion makes it inappropriate for areas of natural beauty
bulletHighly variable - depends on back-up being available from hydro and fossil fuel generation for times when conditions are too light or too severe to allow wind turbines to operate
bulletCommunity acceptance - potential noise and visual issues

In 2030 Denmark plans to satisfy 50% of its electricity needs by means of wind energy (as opposed to 10% today).
Although renewable energy makes up only 2% of primary energy used worldwide, the ecological advantages attract great interest.
Thanks to technical progress, which has reduced noise created by wind farms (installed about a 1/3 of a mile, or 500 m, from residential areas),
resistance is fading.  And with a 30% average annual growth rate in the past four years, the wind farm seems to be here to stay.
Photo source:

Other Renewables

Renewable energy resources are those that are replenished naturally but limited in the amount that can be used at any one time.  Renewable energy resources include biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action and tidal action.


In many parts of New Zealand, volcanic activity heats up water underground to very high temperatures.  Geothermal power involves drilling deep wells to tap into this high temperature water to produce steam to turn electricity turbines.

The Pros

bulletRenewable energy using heat from the Earth's core
bulletSubstantial untapped reserves
bulletTechnology and efficiency improving
bulletProvides continuous generation - ideal for security of supply
bulletSome reserves would be relatively economic to develop

The Cons

bulletWastewater and emissions require environmental control
bulletPotential for land subsidence
bulletPotential impact on existing geothermal features of cultural or economic significance
bulletSome reserves would be costly to develop


The sun's energy can be directly harnessed in two main ways: solar heating of buildings or water, and electricity generation using solar cells (photovoltaics).

Photo source: visit their site for information on solar power as an energy source

The Pros

bulletClean, abundant energy source
bulletCapable of being tapped simply through 'solar-savvy' architecture
bulletImproving technologies and scientific understanding of possibilities
bulletGrowing public acceptance and uptake of solar water heating technology
bulletSolar space and water heating can be incorporated relatively cheaply when a building is being constructed
bulletReadily available to everyone doesn't require expensive national grid upgrades

The Cons

bulletSolar electricity generation using photovoltaics is expensive
bulletIt is often expensive to fit solar heating into existing buildings
bulletSeasonal and regional variations - unreliable, daylight/weather-dependent


Primary processing industries such as timber and pulp and paper plants generate waste biomass.  These by-products can be burned to produce steam and generate electricity with lower sulphur and nitrogen emissions than coal.

Already, 4% of our national energy supply is provided by woody biomass.

The Pros

bulletUses materials that would otherwise be wasted
bulletPotential to lower energy costs on-site and reduce demand on national grid
bulletCost-competitive in many cases
bulletRenewable resource

The Con

bulletWaste materials need to be close to generation site to be economical

Tidal/Wave Action

Source: check their site for a novel approach to tidal power.
See and for other approaches.

Wave power involves converting the up and down motion of the waves into electricity using devices either fixed to the shore, or floating out at sea.

Tidal power involves capturing some of the energy that is inherent in moving vast quantities of water back and forth twice a day.  Tidal devices can either be large dam-like structures, or they could involve turbines anchored free within the tidal flow.

The Pros

bulletClean, abundant energy source
bulletPotentially suited to New Zealand conditions
bulletCost of technology likely to fall

The Cons

bulletTechnology is currently expensive and in its infancy
bulletRelentlessly harsh environment
bulletEnvironmental and marine safety issues
bulletNew Zealand tidal flows not especially strong

French Pass, which separates d'Urville Island from the South Island coast, is the only place in the world where two different levels of ocean can be seen at once.  This causes tremendously dangerous currents - sometimes the tide flows at up to 8 knots through the narrow Pass. Perhaps it would have strong enough flows to generate energy?

Energy Efficiency

The range of potential energy efficiency measures is as diverse as the range of different energy uses.

The Pros

bulletVery environmentally friendly - reduced energy consumption
bulletVery secure and reliable
bulletA significant cost-effective potential
bulletSocial benefits - impact on housing warmth, dryness, respiratory illness, especially among the elderly and very young

The Cons

bulletSuffers from barriers to investment
bulletConsumers often are not aware of what they could do to save energy
bulletOr cannot be bothered
bulletOr don't have funds available to invest in energy efficiency
bulletLong payback times for some energy efficiency investments
bulletRetro-fitting existing buildings not always cost-effective


To many people, nuclear power is a fundamentally unacceptable option.  Concerns over nuclear are many and varied, including:

bulletnuclear waste will have to be stored for thousands of years
bulletthe risk of accidents such as the one at Chernobyl
bulletpossible deliberate terrorist strikes
bulletthe problems of proliferating nuclear technology to politically unstable states'
bulletor even concerns that the cost of nuclear still isn't properly known given the uncertainties regarding decommissioning and waste disposal.

However, as concern about global warming grows, it is increasingly suggested that nuclear power should play a significant role in meeting the world's future electricity requirements.  Supporters of this now claim that the concerns highlighted above are no longer the problem they used to be and that nuclear now represents a clean, safe and cost-effective option. Most recently, noted environmentalist and author of the "Gaia" theory, James Lovelock, has added his voice to such calls.

Contact has not included nuclear as a possible option for New Zealand for two main reasons.  Partly this reflects the no-nukes stance that has been adopted by successive governments.  However, it also reflects the fact that it is not expected that a nuclear option would be commercially viable in New Zealand now or in the near future.  That is, among other reasons, because nuclear power relies on large economies of scale to achieve acceptable costs.  The smallest unit size commercially available is in the order of 600MW.  This is a very large unit size for the New Zealand, almost twice the current largest unit on the system.  A base-load unit of this size present a significant number of technical challenges.  It would simply not be feasible without significant changes to the way we operate the system to accommodate something of that scale in New Zealand for many years to come.

Source: - an important website.  Please give them a visit, including their facts and links pages - get involved!

See also: the preceding 3 pages (clicking "Back" below will get you to one) for more about peak oil, energy alternatives, the hydrogen economy and other stuff...

How the US Gets Energy (Interactive)


For pages on natural disasters - including lightning strikes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, and more - as well as some great satellite and tree photos, clicking the "Up" button immediately below takes you to the Table of Contents page for this Environment section.

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