The air in Greytown’s Town Centre facility was charged on Tuesday night during a public meeting organised by the South Wairarapa Whenua Action Group [SWWAG] to discuss concerns about local solar developments.
Representatives from interested solar developers Far North Solar Farms [which has lodged a resource consent application for a 235-hectare development on Bidwills Cutting Rd] and Helios [which has yet to make an application] had not been invited.
Victoria University professor and leading environmental researcher Mike Joy took the stage to kick-start the evening.
“The last time I was here, I was talking about a proposal for a dam,” Joy began.
“The similarity with that proposal was that it was an entrepreneur wanting to make money and using the story about climate change and environment to justify making money.”
According to Joy, there are still a number of downsides when it comes to relying on large-scale renewable energy developments.
“While the energy captured from this equipment is renewable, the materials that make the equipment aren’t. You get a couple of decades if you’re lucky with solar,” Joy said.
“We call them renewable, but we can’t build them without fossil fuels. We’re using the system to build them.
“Renewable is cheap because we build it with fossil fuels. How much would it cost to build solar, with energy gained from solar?”
Joy firmly stated his view that transitioning to a world using solar to churn through the same amount of energy use – which has tripled in NZ in the 64 years since he was born – is not the answer.
As murmurs of agreement rippled through the audience, Joy said that a reduction in energy consumption is needed instead.
“Are we trying to save the planet with renewables, or are we just trying to save our current lifestyles?” Joy asked.
He wrapped up his presentation to a loud round of applause and handed the mic over to Frank van Steensel, soil scientist and co-owner operator of the Wairarapa Eco Farm, who has soil in the game because his farm would border the proposed Far North Solar Farm development on its north and west boundaries if the development goes ahead.
In van Steensel’s opinion, a large, industrial development would have a detrimental effect on the healthy, self-sustaining environment he and his family have worked hard to build.
“I personally feel rather threatened by this exercise,” van Steensel said.
“It’s opposed to everything we stand for. A downward spiral environmentally, while we’re trying to show a positive example.”
Far North Solar Farms did not respond to a request for comment and has previously said that any concerns about its proposal will be addressed in the Environment Court.
In response to queries from the Times-Age, Helios spokesperson Jonathan Hill said solar is important in transitioning away from fossil fuels.
“For example, the current levels of coal and gas in our electricity system – electrification of transport is one of the quickest ways to cut the country’s emissions and dependence on fossil fuel.”
Hill pointed to the Q&A section of the Helios website to address concerns about the safety of solar for soil and water, and cited research indicating that solar farms provide an energy payback period of two to three years.
“We urge people, regardless of their opinions, to ensure they look at facts,” he said.
Also speaking at the meeting was SWWAG secretary Dayandra Hettige, who briefly referenced his background in electro-engineering: “I was posted in Haywood substation, where I witnessed some catastrophic fires.”
Referencing data from fire prevention consultancy Firetrace International, Hettige said he believes that solar farm fires are significantly under-reported globally.
Other concerns canvassed at the meeting included recycling capability, the intermittent nature of solar, and noise and dust effects.
Hill said panel recycling involves stripping off the aluminium frames for general recycling and crushing the glass and silicon, which then gets used in construction materials.
“We anticipate the recycling process here will refine and grow over the 35-year term of our solar projects,” Hill said.
“We expect high value materials such as refined silicon, silver and copper will be either thermally or mechanically separated from the glass and reused in panel manufacturing.”
Hill said fire safety concerns have already been covered with Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and that the intermittent nature of solar is a “red herring”.
“It balances hydro production, allowing water to be stored in summer for use in winter, and generates during the day when most electricity is consumed.
“I think we’ve already covered that solar is basically silent. Once built we can’t see why dust would be an issue.”
Tuesday’s SWWAG meeting ended with the majority in the room raising their hands supporting a community petition addressing various concerns to be arranged.