It wasn’t so much a line in the sand as a line drawn among the tawny tussocks of the Mackenzie Basin.

Last year, Andrew and Karen Simpson, of Balmoral Station, near Lake Tekapo, applied for consents to build and operate an 88-megawatt solar array on 113 hectares of Crown lease land. The array, containing 135,000 photovoltaic modules, would produce enough electricity to power up to 13,000 homes.

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A hearing was held in Christchurch in August, and on Wednesday the hearing panel issued a decision refusing the consent, mainly because of the potential effects on and risks to an area known to be ecologically significant.

The decision by commissioners Sharon McGarry, Meg Justice and Darryl Millar suggested there could be a permanent and irreversible loss of threatened land environments, and threatened and at-risk indigenous flora and fauna species from the site.

A compensation package, proposed by the Simpsons after the hearing was adjourned, would have protected a 300ha area on private land by a QEII National Trust covenant. But it wouldn’t be enough to avoid what the commissioners considered to be significant adverse effects, the decision said.

Among the uncertainties were how native plants might change because of shading and sheltering from the panels. In combination with continued sheep grazing, and oversowing and topdressing, experts felt it was likely exotic plants would dominate, and eventually wipe out, native ones.

Widening the lens beyond the solar array site, the hearing panel noted the cumulative loss of thousands of hectares of indigenous vegetation in Mackenzie Basin/Te Manahuna, and its replacement with exotic species.

In the end, the need for more, and more diverse, sources of renewable energy was trumped by the spectre of losing yet more significant terrestrial biodiversity – an important part of the Basin’s value as an outstanding natural landscape.

That theme is relevant right now considering the National Party, which is attempting to form a Government with Act and New Zealand First, has professed it wants to make it faster and easier to build renewable energy projects.

National wants the country to double its renewable energy generation – not by building pumped hydro at Lake Onslow, however – and has promised to issue a new national policy statement to achieve that.

The proposed solar array site is west of Lake Tekapo/Takapō. Satellite image: Google Earth

Environmental Defence Society submitted against the Mackenzie Basin solar array. Chief executive Gary Taylor says biodiversity can’t be sacrificed to address the climate crisis.

“We need to have solutions that address those twin crises, and this project didn’t do that.”

Even though it was the first application of its kind, commissioners didn’t think the decision would set a precedent, making it easier for future solar farm consents to be approved in the Basin.

Rather, other applications would be considered case-by-case and on their merits.

There’s a high bar, because of various plans and the Resource Management Act, protecting significant biodiversity and landscape values, the decision says.

Taylor says the commissioners highlighted the importance of cumulative effects.

What does it tell us about industrial-scale developments in the Mackenzie?

“It tells us that they’re complicated,” Taylor says. “Over the next little while, we’re going to have to really keep our heads about where to prioritise renewables.

“We can’t just have environmental values chewed away willy-nilly because of the climate crisis.”

Taylor calls for excluding high-value areas through what he calls constraints mapping. Another way to do that is to prioritise large-scale offshore wind energy projects over land-based wind.

Environmental group Forest & Bird also opposed the solar array.

Its Canterbury manager Nicky Snoyink, who appeared at the hearing in August, says the commissioners understood the indigenous biodiversity in the Mackenzie was significant and worthy of protection.

“There’s been years of advocacy gone in there and we need to make sure that it’s not undone.”

Another witness at the hearing was Roger Sutton, the former boss of Christchurch lines company Orion, who now heads Mid Canterbury’s EA Networks.

Sutton outlined the need for more renewable energy generation, and the Mackenzie project’s social and economic benefits. He highlighted the need to decarbonise and reduce greenhouse gases, lower energy prices and diversify renewable energy generation, the commissioners wrote in their decision.

The Simpsons had partnered with Infratech NZ, whose general manager Nicholas Bibby highlighted at the hearing “the need to meet significant growth in electricity demand to 2050 from population growth and to decarbonise the grid by 2030”. He noted 220 megawatts of solar is required to be installed each year until 2050 to meet the 22.7 gigawatt capacity target.

The New Zealand Defence Force, which owns neighbouring land with high indigenous biodiversity values near Tekapō, conditionally agreed to the solar array plan.

Department of Conservation Twizel operations manager Di Finn says the department submitted evidence “on the potential adverse effects on threatened and at-risk indigenous biodiversity, enabling the values of the critically rare dryland ecosystems of the Mackenzie Basin to be given weight in this decision”.

“DoC supports renewable energy generation in appropriate places.”

(The Simpsons were earlier granted an easement for the solar array by the Commissioner of Crown Lands.)

Attempts to reach Andrew Simpson for comment weren’t successful before publication deadline. It’s not known whether the Simpsons are considering an appeal.

Andrew Simpson believes diversification is important in maintaining a thriving farm. Photo: David Williams

Before delving into the consent decision, it’s worth traversing the history of development in the Mackenzie.

At August’s hearing, the Mackenzie Guardians environmental group said it was worried approving the solar development would undermine years of work to strengthen landscape and biodiversity protection.

Those efforts culminated in the Mackenzie district’s plan change 13, which declared the Basin an outstanding natural landscape, and plan change 18, on managing indigenous biodiversity.

In 2019, plan change 13 became operational, Andrew Simpson, as Federated Farmers’ high country chairman, said he felt it would be an impediment to farming.

Research published in 2018 found the greening or intensification of the Mackenzie more than doubled in land area after 2003, from 20,000ha to 45,000ha – much of it on Crown-owned land or properties freeholded through tenure review.

Hence the commissioners’ focus on cumulative effects.

The Simpsons’ lawyer, Katherine Forward, told the hearing it was the commissioners’ role to “balance” the proposal’s contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, with landscape and ecological issues.

That’s what they’ve done, the commissioners said in their decision.

Yes, the project would lead to significant positive impacts, and the importance of renewable energy generation is enshrined in a specific national policy statement. There is a carve-out for renewable energy projects in the national policy statement for indigenous biodiversity (NPS-IB), adopted earlier this year.

But these “higher order” documents don’t elevate renewable energy above the protection of significant biodiversity values, the decision says.

The site’s ecological significance sits within the context of the Basin’s ecosystem loss, Department of Conservation lawyer Dr Ceri Warnock told commissioners.

Building a solar farm on that site would alter conditions sufficiently to cause significant and irreversible changes.

Expert opinions agreed there was a real possibility that threatened and at-risk indigenous flora would be “significantly impacted and unlikely to persist, thus moving further towards extinction,” Warnock said.

Given the potential scale and pace of losses on ecosystems rated as naturally uncommon, conservation department biodiversity ranger Tayla Hooker said “any remaining assemblage of native biodiversity occurring on these landforms was significant and should be protected”.

Another issue was the lack of ecological baseline data.

Comprehensive surveys of invertebrates and birds weren’t done, and the vegetation survey was “limited”, according to Mackenzie Guardians’ ecologist Dr Susan Walker. The commissioners agreed.

The applicant’s experts, Boffa Miskell, failed to convince commissioners the effects would be no more than minor.

Dr Jaz Morris, a senior ecologist at Boffa Miskell, said a small number of species might have been missed in surveys but this didn’t change his assessment that the proposal would have no greater than “very low” or “low” ecological effects.

Appearing for Environmental Defence Society, environmental consultant Mike Harding assessed the site as having high ecological value, because of rarity, and because the effects of the solar array were unknown the conclusions reached by the applicant’s experts were “unreasonably optimistic”. Again, the commissioners agreed.

“Our conclusion with respect to adverse ecological impacts is that they will be more than minor and potentially significant.”
– Commissioners Sharon McGarry, Meg Justice and Darryl Millar

Of less concern were two wetlands, which were to be fenced and protected by a 20m buffer. Adverse effects would be “sufficiently avoided”, the decision said.

Also, visual effects weren’t a huge concern, given the site’s lack of visibility from public places and the surrounding shelter belt of trees.

However, all experts agreed the development site was ecologically significant. “There are no degrees of significance,” the decision says.

(Commissioners took a particularly dim view of the applicant’s experts using Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand’s non-statutory guidelines for ecological assessments, which “relies on the subjective assignment of ecological values and averaging, and the overall result is highly dependent on the context used”.)

That means the area must be protected “as a matter of national importance” under the Resource Management Act’s section 6, the Canterbury Regional Policy Statement, and the Mackenzie District Plan.

The problem then is that there needs to be “no net loss” of biodiversity, and preferably a net gain.

Ecologist Dr Kelvin Lloyd, an independent reviewer, said the compensation package’s offset area was three times larger than the solar array site, and had higher ecological values. But there wasn’t expert ecological evidence to prove that.

DoC’s Warnock said even with the offset offer, the project would still lead to “an incremental loss and overall reduction of irreplaceable and vulnerable threatened and at-risk species, and endangered ecosystems and land environments”.

The decision said the compensation package failed two of three internationally developed principles for compensation, and didn’t adequately address the other.

Adverse ecological impacts “will be more than minor and potentially significant”, the commissioners said.

“On the issue of ecology, we state for clarity that the ‘carve out’ that exists in the NPS-IB for renewable energy generation does not obviate us from consideration of the nature and scale of such effects.”

Canterbury’s regional policy statement “requires halting the decline of Canterbury’s ecosystems and indigenous biodiversity”. Another objective requires areas of significant indigenous vegetation, and significant habitats of indigenous fauna “be identified and their values and ecosystem function protected”.

The solar proposal was found to be inconsistent with these objectives.

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

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