Much of the history of New Zealand power generation boils down to a classic tension: environment versus the environment.

Building hydro-electric dams involves flooding valleys, controlling river flows and building thousands of kilometres of transmission lines. But it means New Zealand can usually rely on hydro – not fossil fuels – to provide the bulk of our electricity.

The potential for environmental damage, or imposing industrial-scale developments in our precious landscapes, has sparked opposition that has eventually scuppered some large-scale renewable energy projects.

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There was Meridian Energy’s 176-turbine windfarm, called Project Hayes, proposed for the South Island’s Maniototo area.

Or the $1.2 billion hydro plan for the lower Waitaki River, called Project Aqua, another Meridian brainchild.

In recent years, the project that has captured the public’s imagination, and some opposition on environmental grounds, is the hydro-battery scheme proposal for Lake Onslow, near Roxburgh.

A new, smaller chapter has now been added to this renewable story: a plan to build a solar array on a 9700-hectare Mackenzie Basin farm.

Spread over 113 hectares of Balmoral Station, near Tekapō, the installation, when fully built, will feature about 135,000 solar panels, capable of producing up to 88-megawatts (MW) of electricity – enough to power 13,000 homes.

(In 2020, the whole Mackenzie district had fewer than 4000 dwellings, including holiday homes.)

Given the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the case might sound environmentally compelling. But in Te Manahuna/Mackenzie Basin, land-use changes have, in some places, turned green a naturally brown landscape, which has caused widespread concern.

The basin is considered an outstanding natural landscape, and, in another twist, the solar farm proposal is on pastoral lease land.

Ralph Sims, an emeritus professor of sustainable energy and climate mitigation at Massey University, says whether the proposal is approved might depend on where it’s located, and its impact on the natural environment.

“On the other hand, of course, we need all the electricity from renewables that we can get.”

(Massey University itself is seeking approval for its own solar farm. A 400MW solar power station is proposed near Taupō, while three big solar farms were announced in quick succession in and around Christchurch.)

Professor Ann Brower, an environmental geographer at University of Canterbury, thinks the Commissioner for Crown Lands lack teeth when it comes to controlling developments on pastoral leases. “I think the bigger question is the outstanding natural landscape.”

Balmoral Station lessee Andrew Simpson, and his wife Karen, have partnered with Infratec for their solar array proposal. Photo: David Williams

The Mackenzie Basin – with its turquoise lakes set amongst glacier-carved, tussock-strewn plains, and ringed by soaring mountains – is listed as an outstanding landscape, which places clamps on development.

Crown pastoral leases, meanwhile, were established in the 1940s and 1950s (and now cover 1.2 million hectares of the South Island) to give farmers security of tenure in return for responsible management, including protecting environmental and cultural values.

It’s fair to assume solar arrays weren’t anticipated when the leases were created.

Lessees have exclusive occupation rights, and the right to graze. Anything beyond pastoral farming needs consent from the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

The Crown’s land manager, Land Information New Zealand/Toitū Te Whenua confirms a deed of easement application request for the solar array proposal at Balmoral Station was received in November 2021. A decision by the commissioner is expected in the next five-to-seven weeks.

“We consult with the director-general of conservation on application requests and the effects to the inherent values on the pastoral lease land the proposed requests may have,” says Land Information head of Crown property Sonya Wikitera.

Nicky Snoyink, regional conservation manager for environmental lobby group Forest & Bird, says it’s possibly a good sign the commissioner has taken so long to consider the development.

“We need to look at renewable energy but we just need to be really careful where we put it so it doesn’t ruin any more native vegetation; native values.

“There are probably other places on Balmoral where it would be more appropriate.”

One purpose of the Crown Pastoral Land Act is a “fair return” to the Crown. Snoyink asks: “What’s in it for the Crown, on behalf of the people of New Zealand?”

Wikitera says the revenue for proposed easement activities is assessed by a registered valuer, and there are, as yet, no agreements with Balmoral over a “fair return” from the solar farm because the application is still being processed.

Out of sight on a modified site

In August 2020, Balmoral’s partner company, Infratec, commissioned a feasibility study for a solar array to be built there.

The first site was considered too prominent and had very high ecological values. Two further sites were studied, including the one in this proposal, known as “Irishman paddocks”.

It’s bordered by pine trees 15-20m in height, and is behind the Old Man Range, which makes it “not visible” from Tekapō’s Mt John observatory and State Highway 8.

An assessment of landscape effects from consultancy Boffa Miskell says: “In landscape terms, the implementation of the solar farm will represent a localised temporary disruption of an existing modified area.”

The site has been actively farmed by sheep and beef cattle, and is dominated by exotic pasture.

Boffa Miskell’s ecologists wrote: “Even though the proposal is for a large infrastructure project, our assessment of at-worst low level effects considers the already modified nature of the solar farm site but also the relatively insignificant direct impacts of earthworks and site clearance required to construct the solar panel arrays.”

But there’d be a net gain to the wetlands by excluding livestock with a 20m buffer, and restricting grazing to just sheep.

Reports filed to Mackenzie District Council and Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, with the Balmoral Station consent application make the case for the solar array to be approved.

(The consent was lodged on May 5 last year, a week before the third reading of the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Act, aimed at stricter oversight and transparency about developments on Crown pastoral leases.)

“Solar generation is seen as a fitting extension of this sustainable investment commitment.” – Boffa Miskell report

Lessee Andrew Simpson tells Newsroom he’s been thinking about solar for Balmoral, which runs merino sheep and Angus cattle, for 20 years but the economics weren’t right.

Things have changed now, including discussions about phasing out coal-burning Huntly Power Station.

“If we want to close down Huntly, the New Zealand public are going to have to accept other opportunities for power production somewhere,” Simpson says. “And to me, solar is the least intrusive of probably anything.”

The chosen site is the least sensitive on the property. “We think that we can mitigate most of the issues.”

He adds: “We would have preferred to have put it on freehold title but it was environmentally and visually very hard to do on our freehold site.”

Andy Perry, general manager of the Simpson family companies, says the solar site will occupy about 1 percent of the property.

Given the proposal is yet to get consent discussions haven’t happened with interested parties, Simpson says, but he envisages joint venture or similar structure. “We know that there are a number of interested parties out there.”

He expects the commissioner to come back with a proposal for a fair return on the solar array’s revenue, and for a negotiation to ensue. “If they’re wanting too much it just won’t happen,” he warns.

The proposal’s assessment of environmental effects report, also prepared by Boffa Miskell, said the family’s vision, as fourth-generation Tekapō farmers, was to “create an environmentally and economically diverse business for the benefit of future generations and our community”.

Balmoral Station – mainly a sheep and beef farm, supplemented by visitor accommodation, horse-trekking and residential development – is already carbon positive, thanks to forestry blocks on more than 500 hectares between Tekapō and Pukaki.

“Solar generation is seen as a fitting extension of this sustainable investment commitment,” the report says. (The solar farm will be built in two stages, some years apart.)

While the site is dominated by exotic pasture but, according to an ecological report by Boffa Miskell, indigenous vegetation “remain prevalent”. Several plant species are nationally at risk, and one is nationally threatened.

The paddock is split by a central wetland which forms a meandering, roughly triangular channel, in which water moves at a slow seep. This wetland has been degraded by stock but still contains threatened and at-risk wetland plant species.

Two smaller wetlands in the south-west corner are “highly degraded”.

Planned earthworks will clear space for buildings, car parking, access tracks, and trenches for electrical cables.

The 4.6m-wide panels will create microclimates for vegetation, through greater shade, which is likely to benefit exotic grasses because of lower temperatures and higher humidity and soil moisture.

Summertime temperatures across the solar farm site is likely to be higher, according to studies.

Mana whenua have been consulted, and a memorandum of agreement with Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua is proposed. The Mackenzie Basin lakes were part of a mahinga kai trail from Lake Pūkaki down the Waitaki River’s original path to the coast.

“This is a completely different activity, a departure from the purpose for which that land is held.” – Nicky Snoyink

Snoyink, of Forest & Bird, says the Crown Pastoral Land Act mandates “maintaining or enhancing inherent values” on leases.

For consents in the Mackenzie, that’s done through by what’s known as plan change 18 to the district plan, which covers indigenous biodiversity.

“This is exactly what we’ve been fighting for, to protect,” Snoyink says.

The site for the proposed Balmoral Station array is one-and-a-half times the size of Auckland Domain – an industrial-sized development for what has been a rural area, established for pastoral farming.

“This is a completely different activity, a departure from the purpose for which that land is held,” she says.

As climate change accelerates the need for moving away from fossil fuels, solar energy is becoming cheaper.

According to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, unit costs for solar energy decreased 85 percent between 2010 to 2019. It’s no surprise, then, that renewable energy generation is surging globally, with wind and solar power leading the way.

However, the International Renewable Energy Agency warns the world is falling short of the goal, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The agency says $US35 trillion ($NZ55 trillion) needs to be invested in what it calls “transition technologies” between now and 2030.

Back in New Zealand, Stats NZ figures show Lake Tekapō generally gets more than 2000 annual sunshine hours, and the recent trend is those hours have increased.

Sims, of Massey University, says the country has been rightly proud of its plentiful renewable energy resources – which generated 82.1 percent of the country’s electricity needs last year.

However, with the right incentives, the same amount of power generated by a solar farm in the Mackenzie Basin could be generated from people’s rooftops, he says.

“And it could be producing electricity just as cheaply. But of course it’s much more difficult to get people to do that, as opposed to a farmer leasing their land or installing such an array for a major profit.

“So I suppose it’s inevitable; it’s [large solar farms in rural areas] going to happen. But we need to control, to some degree, where it’s going to happen in case there’s any local environmental impacts.”

In other words, the usual battleground where different aspects of the environment go to war.

Public submissions on the consent applications close on April 21.

* This story was updated on April 11 with comment from Andrew Simpson

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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