N.Z. utility launches case for 260-MW Lower Waitaki

New Zealand generator Meridian Energy launched two weeks of testimony August 13, seeking government permission to divert, use, and discharge water from the Lower Waitaki River for a proposed hydroelectric project of between 210 MW and 260 MW.

Meridian applied to Environment Canterbury in late 2006 for the first stage of resource consents for the proposed North Bank Tunnel Concept, which would feature a 34-kilometer tunnel along the Waitaki between Waitaki Dam and Stonewall, with an underground powerhouse. (HNN 10/17/06) Hearings began August 13.

�N.Z. needs energy, but moreover N.Z. needs that energy to be renewable, to meet its international obligations under Kyoto Protocol, to minimize the impacts of climate change generally, to avoid the New Zealand price of electricity being driven by an international commodity price such as liquefied natural gas,� Meridian Chief Executive Keith Turner said in prepared testimony.

Turner said the North Bank Tunnel Concept is a unique opportunity for large-scale development and enables New Zealand to develop benefits without the need to add new storage by making better use of existing natural and physical resources.

�This project can be achieved while still meeting the vision that the Waitaki Allocation Board had in terms of maintaining the environment and in particular the instream values of the river, wetlands, landscape values, and cultural values,� the utility head said.

The utility said it adopted a staged approach to its filing to ensure sufficient water is available before it invests millions of dollars on detailed engineering investigations. Additionally, it wants to ensure the community has time to understand and comment on the concept.

The North Bank Tunnel Concept would occupy part of the area of a proposed 524-MW Project Aqua canal and powerhouse system that Meridian abandoned in 2004 due to uncertainty over obtaining water rights and resource consents. Turner said Meridian learned important lessons from the Project Aqua effort and made significant modifications to its proposal including water sharing provisions, a tunnel-based proposal that minimizes many effects on the area, and consultation with affected parties.

Despite a lengthy list of opponents scheduled to testify, Turner cited results of a survey of area residents by UMR that found 53 percent of respondents supported the project with no knowledge of mitigation proposals.

�The support levels rise, to 62 percent, when respondents were informed of mitigation plans and the community fund initiative,� Turner said.

A key request of Meridian is to change a Waitaki Allocation Board requirement that a minimum flow of 150 cms be maintained year around. Turner said, after careful study, the utility found the project would not be viable if 150 cms flows were maintained.

�We have reluctantly concluded that we need to proceed with this application as a non-complying activity under the plan,� he said. �The expert advice available is that with the varying monthly flow and the accompanying mitigation, particularly as reflected in the River Management Plans, the overall outcomes envisaged by the board in developing the plan (including allocation to other uses) will still be met.�

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