Friday, April 12, 2024

Muldoonism, solar farms, and legitimacy

NewsHub had an article yesterday about progress on Aotearoa's largest solar farm, at "The Point" in the Mackenzie Country. 420MW, right next to a grid connection and transmission infrastructure, and next to dams - meaning it can work in tandem with them to maximise water storage. Its exactly the sort of project we need to decarbonise the country and Electrify All The Things, but there's a problem: the entire Mackenzie basin is (for good reason) designated an "outstanding natural landscape". And its easy to see how a giant solar array would interfere with that landscape.

Other companies have obtained resource consent for similar sized solar projects by the simple expedient of not trying to put them in an outstanding natural landscape. But rather than doing that, or attempting to convince the district council or EPA that their project can fit into the landscape, these developers are considering applying for "consent" through National's corrupt Muldoonist "fast-track" legislation, so they can just drive a bulldozer through the whole thing. I'd urge them not to, because by doing so, they would fundamentally delegitimise their project, and invite a future government to not just fully review any corruptly-gained "consent", but potentially legislatively cancel it and impose a make-good order for any work done. Meaning they'd need to tear down whatever they build and restore the landscape. Which is obviously a suboptimal outcome for the developers, and for Aotearoa.

There's an obvious parallel between this project, and Project Hayes, Meridian's plan for a giant wind-farm in Central Otago, or the Turitea Wind Farm, which was built in a designated reserve. In both cases the choice to try develop a valued and protected landscape made the projects highly doubtful from the outset, and made the default response "nice, but maybe somewhere else please" - its not like we're short of great sites for wind or solar farms, after all. And in both cases the RMA process explored the environmental impacts and what could be done to mitigate them, and the appeals process tested that process and ensured it met accepted standards. Hayes was abandoned during the appeals when Meridian accepted that they could just build somewhere else. Turitea meanwhile won its appeals, and gained public acceptance as a result. Which highlights a key value of the slow, participatory RMA and appeals process: it legitimises the outcome. No political party threatened to cancel the consent, and no protestors tried to occupy the site or sabotage the project. While some people (including myself) may have disliked the outcome, it was the result of an obviously fair process, and so basically legitimate.

Muldoonist Ministerial fiat does not impart any of this legitimacy, especially when it comes with an accompanying whiff of corruption (how much has NZ First been given by interested developers through its secret bribe foundation? We don't know.) Which is why it is legitimate to review and if necessary cancel "consents" obtained through such a process.

We need more solar farms. But we need them consented by a legitimate process which fairly assesses environmental impacts and mitigations. Sometimes "not there" is the proper outcome of such a process. Developers should accept that. If they don't, and if they instead resort to corruption, they have only themselves to blame when they face the consequences.