March 09, 2007

ELECTRIC DREAMERS INVESTIGATE: JUN 03

You know the drill: cold shower threats every two years, government warnings of a "1 in 60 year drought" every 18 months - are solar and wind power really the answer to our power prayers? HAMISH CARNACHAN reports

In terms of history repeating itself, it’s hard to find a more perpetual example than New Zealand’s power crisis woes. The last time the situation was so bad that Auckland ex-perienced near-crippling power blackouts the rest of the country was merely amused. However, it was still somewhat mind-boggling to comprehend the situation unfolding in the City of Sails, the supposed ‘powerhouse’ of the New Zealand economy.

Here was one of those stories you tend to associate with third-world countries, either crippled by poverty or tearing themselves apart through civil war, as you skim over the ‘news in brief’ column in the world section of the national newspaper. But when "crisis" is plastered all over the front page, it’s generally a lot closer to home.

Nationwide, similar sentiments of exasperation were expressed: "It’s not the sort of thing that happens here – we learn from our mistakes." Apparently not. That was a little over four years ago but today New Zealanders again find themselves having to pull together, in the mould of some monumental wartime effort, to try and avoid another winter of seemingly imminent power cuts.

Should we be surprised? Not really, say some critics, the signals have been there for some time, perhaps the most significant of which was recent news that the Maui gasfield, that provides nearly 80 percent of the country’s natural gas, is due to run out in just four years’ time: 2007.

Most of us would have had no idea of the significance surrounding the announcement of the looming, but inevitable, demise of Maui. However, a matter of weeks ago, when it was coupled with "dry winter" forecasts and warnings of very low hydro-lake levels, alarm bells started ringing – for the second time in three years.

Although news of the Maui gasfield running dry was followed by an apparent consolation - the Pohokura field, we found out, is due to come online in 2005 - there is a problem in that the replacement is only a third the size of Maui. Additionally, energy boffins expect the gas will be considerably more expensive. While Pohokura will almost certainly leave a massive shortfall in energy supply, greater concern surrounds the hydroelectric schemes, which are the major source of power in New Zealand.

The impending power crisis is now the most significant we have had to face in what has been a well publicised, chequered history of power demand and supply, and many people have been left to ponder the question: "Where to from here?" Well, government has finally set a course, but it remains to be seen whether they are steering us in the right direction.

While some commentators continue to argue that we would be all right but for the lack of rain, that clearly is not a solution. Power generation in New Zealand has been in a sorry state of flux for quite some time despite warnings of a situation similar to what we now find ourselves in having been heralded, and signalled, well before the rock-bottom blackouts that hit the Auckland central business district in 1998 – remember the 1992 power crisis?

In more recent times, two years ago, Energy Minister Pete Hodgson was touting the same magic figure of 10 percent power savings we are again being told will help us avoid cold showers and missing out on our favourite TV soap operas this winter. Conservation measures worked in 2001 – just – but how much longer are New Zealanders expected to tread this well-worn winter path? Have we learnt nothing from the past?

Believe it or not, this is a question that has been posed in Parliament, yet invariably discourse degenerates into a finger-pointing exercise with blame being passed around like a light bulb hot out of a live socket.

Hodgson has stated publicly that there are no more rivers to dam for hydroelectric power schemes and, bound by the Kyoto Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it seems unlikely that the Government will endorse the increased use of coal, gas or oil-fired power generation favoured by the electricity industry as a means of meeting escalating energy demands.

The government’s Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority (EECA) paints a vivid picture of this voracious appetite for energy consumption. Its figures show that between 1996 and 2001 energy demand increased by roughly 1.5 percent per annum (others put it as high as 5 percent) from 425 petajoules (PJ) to 458 PJ. To put that in some sort of context, 30 PJ translates to the annual energy consumption of 840 000 households or 30 times the total annual energy consumption of a town the size of Nelson.

When viewed in such light, it is not too hard to see that demand has clearly outstripped regional growth but, perhaps more concerning is the fact that while the trend shows no sign of abating, generating capacity has been static for the past two decades.

Unfortunately, history suggests the solution is not equally as simple, otherwise New Zealand would not be seen by some as the only ‘first-world’ country to neglect what our counterparts view as an essential service worthy of continual monitoring and upkeep.

Prior to the problems stemming from demand outstripping capacity, hydroelectric power generation had been a faithful servant to New Zealanders, and could explain why we are one of the few countries in the world to use water for most of our power. It provided households with a reliable and comparatively cheaper source of electric energy than that offered in other countries. And aside from the initial damage to river systems and valleys during dam construction, it is still accepted as a ‘clean’ method of energy production. Now though, it appears evident that we have been guilty of storing all our eggs in the one basket.

According to Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, our single-minded reliance on hydroelectric power generation is one of central parts of the present crisis. She suspects that the valleys flooded for the hydro system were too narrow and steep, resulting in inadequate storage.

"If it doesn’t keep raining we soon run out. If it does, we spill water over the dams."

Relying on the weather gods is futile (at best) in a place like New Zealand, but by today’s standards the majority of the country’s dams are probably inefficient too. Clyde, the most significant and recently commissioned hydro dam, was built 20 years ago, before the advanced technology now utilised in overseas hydro schemes had been developed. Modern dams in Wales have been fitted with reversible pump/turbines that use off-peak electricity to recycle water from the lower reservoir back to the top to use again – the system is ideal for coping with periods of reduced flow.

Technology aside though, critics also suggest the problems link back to legislation set in place three decades ago. In 1973 the Labour government of the day signed a contract to use up the Maui gas deposits over the following 30 years, in order to secure the fuel at the cheapest possible unit price. Says Fitzsimons: "This meant we could only get through the contract amount by using it very wastefully. We built up a huge dependence on gas and no planning was ever done to replace it when it ran out, as it is now doing."

Over the same period, successive governments have deregulated the electricity sector into what is (arguably) a competitive market. However, as Fitzsimons points out, Ministers from Doug Kidd to John Luxton to Max Bradford to Pete Hodgson have set in place and perpetuated a market structure where no one is responsible for the security of supply. Left in the wake of sweeping market ‘reforms’ have been the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (ECNZ), the Electricity Department, and their associated planning and forecasting authorities. Even the Minister of Energy no longer has a Ministry – the portfolio has a department located somewhere in the murky depths of the all-encompassing Ministry of Economic Development.

Now a quest for renewable and sustainable power-generating alternatives seems to be the Government’s chosen answer to tackle the issue of developing a consistent power supply.

While energy production via ‘alternative’ measures has been in parliamentary pipelines for years, past considerations have resulted in little more than a lot of wasted hot air. Like the recently embarrassing Beehive episode, the lights have been on but no one has been home.

That was, at least, until October last year when Cabinet confirmed a ‘renewable energy target’ stipulated in the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (NEECS). Currently New Zealand generates 133 PJ a year from renewable sources. The goal of the strategy is to produce an extra 30 PJ of renewable energy by 2012 – equivalent to the energy produced by an additional 3.5 Benmore dams or 60 Tararua wind farms.

One might be forgiven for thinking the Government had a sense of the impending gloom, however, the Energy Minister’s address given at a conference on the topic two weeks before Cabinet’s announcement, suggests otherwise. While Hodgson acknowledged the probable demand/supply shortfalls by stating, "New Zealand will need significant new generation capacity by about 2005 if we are to adequately cover the risk of a dry year", he assured the audience that "there is no suggestion New Zealand’s electricity system will be unable to meet business-as-usual demand about three years from now".

At the time of his "Energy: the way forward" speech, modelling by Transpower (the national grid operator) suggested 2005 as the point at which the current system might have difficulty meeting demand in a seriously dry year. But through his work with Canterbury University’s Centre for Advanced Engineering, energy consultant Bryan Leyland had come to a markedly different conclusion. He suggested that Transpower was being too optimistic and warned that in 2003 and 2004 the country would have serious problems.

"This is not particularly surprising," quipped the Energy Minister in response, "as Bryan has been releasing his forecasts every two years for nearly a decade now and they always ring alarm bells." Perhaps it could be construed as a little surprising then that no one has paid Leyland due attention.

Local industries, which have recently been forced to periodically shut down their processing plants because of soaring electricity spot prices, will review Hodgson’s statements with bitter irony considering they come from, in a roundabout sort of way, the Ministry of Economic Development.

At the very least, the Minster’s remarks, made only six months before this current crisis, now serve to highlight the seriously flimsy nature of the country’s electricity sector. So, in an attempt to firm it up, a number of renewable energy alternatives have subsequently been earmarked as the preferred ‘way forward’.

For industrial process heat, both geothermal and wood waste com-bustion can compete well with fossil fuels, especially for large high-load plants. The NEECS highlights this as an area of "significant opportunity" for the wood processing industry and of high potential for increasing New Zealand’s overall use of renewable energy sources.

The United States has realised the potential for geothermal energy for years now. The US Department of Energy (like most OECD countries America still has one) has sponsored an initiative called ‘GeoPowering the West’ since the early 1990s. Basically, the scheme is a commitment to dramatically increase the use of geothermal energy in the western United States and aims to have seven million homes using the energy by 2010.

Washington has already invested considerable amounts of capital into the scheme. It views geothermal energy not solely as a reliable source of heat and power for the growing American West, but as a major economic opportunity too – US$500m in new income has been estimated for western landowners over 20 years.

But also favoured in New Zealand are wind farms. In early March, the Government approved two new projects: Trustpower’s proposed 36 megawatt (MW) extension of its existing 32MW Tararua wind farm and a new 40-80MW wind farm proposed by Meridian Energy. These are expected to roughly triple New Zealand’s current wind generation capacity of just under 40MW.

Meridian Energy proclaims that its wind turbine project will be the country’s most productive wind farm, generating enough electricity for 32 300 homes. The scheme won’t come cheap though, at an estimated cost of $100m, and it will be at least two years before power is flowing into the national grid.

In much the same way that we are behind the US in terms of developing our geothermal energy resources, New Zealand is also well behind European nations in terms of generating power from wind, despite these recent initiatives. Last year, Europe increased its wind-power capacity by more than 35 percent and now wind farms deliver enough energy to support 10 million households. Additional offshore wind farms are also in the pipeline - nearly a hundred such ventures are currently being planned to come into operation before 2015.

European electricity suppliers are investing heavily in wind power, which they view as a mature industry with a growing potential to make a significant impact on the energy scene. European wind farms have 17,000MW installed, and Germany tops the list, housing half of Europe’s wind-power capacity.

The Dutch company DNV has just commissioned 80 wind turbines, each with a 2MW capacity, in Denmark at a cost of EURO 250 million, and plans to invest several million EURO per year in wind-power projects over the coming years. It accepts the "considerable investment" needed to implement such schemes because Europe, like New Zealand, is bound by environmental emission standards and both the EU and OECD are moving towards including the cost of pollution in the overall price of electricity. Renewable energy sources are therefore expected to become more competitive when this legislation is set in place.

Additionally, an EU directive, which recently became law, stipulates that 22 percent of the Union’s electricity consumption should be generated by renewable energy sources by 2010. Such stringent environmental legislation has encouraged some rather lateral thinking when it comes to alternative energy production and European nations have subsequently become world-leaders in the field.

German company Farmatic is one such example. It has developed into a market leader for the industrial conversion of biomass and manure into regenerative energy. In Devon, England, the first farm incorporating the company’s technology has recently commenced operating. The plant, which cost £7.7m, uses effluent from 30 local farms to generate 2MW of electricity – enough power to supply 900 households. Waste heat, a by-product of the process, can be routed to local buildings for heating, and the solid waste is safe to spread on fields as fertiliser. Biogas produced by Farmatic’s bio-power plants can alternatively be refined into fuel to power motor vehicles.

It seems almost reminiscent of a certain beer commercial (currently screening on television) in which a group of Kiwi lads utilise the services of a four-legged methane factory and a length of hose to fire their barbeque. Comical? Certainly. Nonsense? Not necessarily.

With more than five million head of cattle in New Zealand some commentators suggest the answer to our power crisis is right under our nose. Dairy farmers, already copping high electricity bills (around $10,000 each year for a 400 cow dairy farm) and set to be hit with emission taxes dictated by the Kyoto Agreement, would look at their farting Friesians in a different light if the Farmatic alternative was given serious consideration.

And New Zealand is ideally situated for what experts at the Scottish engineering company, Wavegen, refer to as the largest untapped energy resource on the planet – waves. Oceans cover approximately 75 percent of the world’s surface and according to Wavegen represent "a vast natural energy resource in the form of waves". In the United Kingdom alone, it has been estimated that the recoverable wave energy resource exceeds total UK electricity demand, and the World Energy Council estimates that 2TW of energy – the equivalent of twice the world’s total electricity production - could be harvested from the world’s oceans.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it may be. Critics argue that the turbines used to generate the electricity are notoriously expensive and only economically viable in isolated areas, far from conventional power supply. Then again, calling New Zealand’s current power supply anything close to "conventional" would be bold.

There is little detail of research into the feasibility of wave generated power in New Zealand because, Fitzsimons suspects, "international work in the area shows it is much less developed commercially than wind or biomass and not likely to contribute much in the short term".

"[However] biogas is particularly well suited to New Zealand but it would be a terrible waste to burn it in power stations which waste at least half, and often more, of the energy value in the fuel. [It would be] better to use it as direct fuel instead of electricity.

"Its suitability to New Zealand is that you can make it from a wide range of agricultural and forestry wastes."

In the 1970s biogas initiatives were investigated in New Zealand and several large industry players incorporated the technology into their processing practices. The Alliance freezing works near Invercargill made biogas in a one million gallon digester and used the fuel to replace 17 tonnes of coal that would otherwise have been burned each day in its wool drying plant. Tirau dairy factory digested whey and other milk wastes to produce fuel to help run the plant. However, because of the historically low cost of natural gas, biogas has not generally been seen as an economic alternative – until now perhaps.

While the alternative energy production ‘breakthroughs’ in Europe have occurred relatively recently, they are the result of a decade-long concerted drive to develop new initiatives – even though some of these countries utilise highly efficient nuclear power. Clearly New Zealand’s resolute stance on nuclear energy is not about to be changed any time soon, but the enterprise being shown overseas underlines the neglect with which successive governments have treated the alternative energy sector.

Sadly, we need not have got ourselves into this situation, argues Fitzsimons.

"Over the 30 years I have been involved in energy policy debate the opportunity has been there to take a different path. Any time during that period we could have done it. We still can, but the longer we leave it the more cold showers we will have to put up with," she says.

"The answer is not large-scale generation anymore. That’s a thing of the past. The answer is many smaller developments built close to where the load is to reduce line losses. Wind and wood suits this very well. We also have to stop thinking how to generate electricity and think how to provide the service electricity does in other ways. Solar water heaters don’t generate power but they do heat water and save power. Insulation will keep your home warmer so you need less electricity. There are hundreds of these examples."

There may be hundreds of examples but the Government’s Energy Wise Home Grants scheme, part of the energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies, focuses on two key areas: insulating the homes of low-income families and encouraging the use of solar water heating.

"Hot water heating accounts for 45 percent of a home’s power use, which means there is significant potential for savings," says the Energy Minister in a briefing paper. "The grants scheme will help develop the market for solar water heaters, which will enable us to utilise more of this renewable resource to meet household energy needs."

In addition to the $1.2m allocated to projects that will insulate the homes of low-income families, the Government has committed $200,000 to the Solar Hot Water Grants scheme - in the next year it plans to install 400 solar water heaters.

But are such relatively minor investments going to pull the country from the clutches of chilling winter power crises? For many, the level of funding is a pitiful response relative to the scale of the problem. Fitzsimons suggests the Government could be doing a lot more. Instead, she says, it is being left up to industry.

And while the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy has set in place a target of a 15 percent improvement in energy efficiency in the public sector by 2006, even Hodgson admits the goal is "ambitious" – hardly encouraging when we are being threatened with blackouts if we fail to reach what has almost become an annual 10 percent power savings threshold.

Time for the million dollar question then: Can the New Zealand public expect that recent renewable energy developments and initiatives, and proposed renewable energy targets, will realistically meet future power demands?

"This is highly dependent on the future growth in the economy and as such, no concrete answer is available," admits Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority spokesman John Boyd. "However, recent energy use projections, by EECA and MED [Ministry of Economic Development], indicate that if both the NEECA targets are achieved, total consumed energy will have increased by a total of 30PJ. Thus the growth in the economy, and the resultant increased power supply demand, could be entirely accommodated by renewable [sources]."

But with the NEECA target nine winters away and the proposed power-generating alternatives due to be phased in over the same period, what happens in the interim, particularly if we have more dry spells and less natural gas?

Boyd won’t comment on the prospect of winter power crises in the near future, but he says a number of actions of the renewable energy programme have already been initiated. According to EECA these include:

· Regulatory barriers – a work project to investigate and address legislative barriers to renewable energy development, undertaken in conjunction with the Ministry for the Environment.

· Industry development – ongoing support of the renewable energy industry associations (including the development action plans for future priorities) to encourage the uptake of renewable energy covering wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydrological.

· Biomass – an investigation into the opportunities for biomass through liaison with forestry and other relevant sectors.

"The project’s mechanism," adds Boyd, "which is part of the Government’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, includes the introduction of a carbon emissions charge from 2007 and opportunities for carbon credits to help ensure the economic viability of proposals. The Minister of Energy has recently awarded carbon credits to two proposed new wind farms."

Under investigation it still appears a little thin on substance because, say some critics, these strategies are more closely aligned to meeting Kyoto commitments than sourcing a reliable power supply for the New Zealand public.

Fitzsimons doesn’t buy into such attacks. She says take the Kyoto Agreement out of the equation and investments in alternative power generation still pay off. The Green Party co-leader may have a point. Presumably Meridian would not be building a large wind plant if it were not going to pay dividends – the company’s shareholders simply wouldn’t agree to it.

Yet, despite the extent of the power supply problems in New Zealand, it is still questionable whether the Government’s renewable energy strategies represent a response to the issue as serious as that taken by members of the European Union, or even the United States. While the US is often, many would argue justly, vilified for excessive energy wastage, Washington is investing billions into the research and development of renewable energy resources.

There is little doubt that alternative energy-generating infrastructure does consume significant capital investment. But if New Zealand wants an uninterrupted supply of power we are going to have to fork out for it. The wind of change is blowing but at the moment it seems little more than a breeze - it could take some time to fill in on our shores too so don’t dust off the electric blanket just yet.


Posted by Ian Wishart at 01:21 AM | Comments (0)

BOOMTOWN BRATS INVESTIGATE: AUG 03

Tthe rest of new zealand is paying for auckland’s new transport network through petrol taxes, but now aucklanders are getting uppity about paying their share of a rates increase. HAMISH CARNACHAN asks whether aucklanders are becoming BILLION DOLLAR BOOMTOWN BRATS...

It’s the fresh face of the new metropolis – shiny, colourful, and clean – a showpiece, of sorts, for where Auckland is heading, and also where it has been. Af-ter a long and difficult gestation, the Britomart is open for busi-ness after more than $200 mil-lion dollars, and the derailing of at least one mayoralty.

And this is just the start of grand plans that are afoot for Auckland. Plans, the authorities tell us, that are needed "to meet the changing face of the city", but plans that are likely to come at a cost to the entire country and are already causing widespread dissent.

The opening of Britomart is only the first completion in a concerted campaign of infrastructure development that will see massive amounts of money being spent in the nation’s largest city over the next 10 years. So what are these projects and where is the city heading? And as local body bureaucrats butt heads over where they want to take Auckland, is the much talked about ‘integrated transport network’ ever likely to leave the station?

To answer these questions we need to descend into the depths of Auckland’s new transport hub, to a place one enthusiastic commentator termed – "the genesis of the city’s future".

It certainly is a futuristic space. A stainless steel lattice sparkles floor to ceiling, reflecting a delicate array of pastel lighting flanking the tracks that snake their way into the underground enclosure. From the main platform you can see the light at the end of the tunnel linking the trains in the depot with the outside world and their ultimate destinations. But the end to Auckland’s transport woes, which Britomart was sold to the public as, is still a long way out of sight.

The trains have been revamped but these metallic pythons have merely shed their skin. They are almost 50 years old and outdated when it comes to meeting modern crash safety standards. The new depot looks impeccable, but at the end of the day it is just that, a depot – a glorified railway yard.

Presently, the place seems to be more congested with sightseers and the curious than true commuters. It’s little wonder either. Digital displays flash and blink, but only herald false promises - the trains still run exceptionally late. And beyond the clean confines of the space-aged station the rail network is a shambles of line faults and graffiti covered shacks.

But, as Auckland City mayor John Banks hastily points out, Britomart, the largest transport and heritage project ever undertaken by a local authority in the history of New Zealand, "is not the end – it is only the beginning."

Quite a turnaround from a man who was once an outspoken critic of the project, calling it that "temple at the bottom of Queen Street" and slating the council for signing it off days before he was elected. Now, he sees it working in with his campaign promise of decisive action on Auckland’s congested roads – something the Ferrari-driver says Aucklanders identify as their number one concern.

The greater Auckland area is New Zealand’s fastest growing region, with a population set to reach 1.65 million by 2021, an in-crease of almost half a million people. Auckland City’s own population is set to reach 530,000 by 2021. Another significant increase given that the latest Census figures put the number of people residing in Auckland at 388,000.

Banks says to compete with major regional hubs like Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, Auckland must focus on the pressures associated with such growth and that means developing a modern transport network.

"With enormous population pressures comes the need for substantial infrastructure development in the areas of roading, public transport, wastewater and sewage," says Banks in crusading manner. "This represents $9 billion over the next 10 years. For this city the biggest investment with the greatest urgency and best return is transport."

And by his own admission, transport is exactly what Banks has built his mayoralty around: "A simple vision of completing the region’s integrated transport network by 2010."

Lines drawn on paper in planning committees might look "simple", but ratepayer scrutiny and funding shortfalls may threaten the certainty of the schemes.

Almost $300 million will be spent on the notorious Spaghetti Junction and Grafton Gully motorway logjam and, despite vocal opposition from environmentalists and residents, plans for the promised Eastern Corridor motorway are "moving forward" according to Banks. State Highway 20 – the Western Corridor through Mount Roskill which forms a "critical part of the triple bypass" – is also moving ahead. And that is just a start.

"But it’s not just about building roads," says Banks. "It is about giving Auckland a modern, integrated transport network, which embraces the triple bypass with affordable public transport."

Indeed, Banks’ council is working with other agencies on an array of plans optimistically expected to be functional within 10 years. These include:

· New and refurbished trains by 2006

· Investigating a rapid transit corridor through the central city, from Britomart to Newmarket, for completion by 2006 - $700 million.

· Creating a North Shore bus way from the Harbour Bridge to Albany at a cost of $200 million.

· Upgrading ferry terminals and suburban railway stations and double tracking of the western line by 2008.

Most Aucklanders would argue that it is long overdue, but when it comes to footing the bill it seems few are prepared to fork out for the proposals, which come with a hefty price tag. It is estimated that $2.5 billion will be needed over the 10-year period.

Some ratepayer groups from within the wider Auckland region have made headlines after urging residents to drip-feed rates payments while they mount a legal challenge against the latest hike. The new Auckland Regional Council (ARC) rates have smacked some residents with rises of over 600 percent to recover the costs of the region’s transport upgrades.

Only time will tell if the rating furore means the ARC will be scrutinised more closely in terms of the value for money it provides on transport and other services, but Transit New Zealand’s latest agenda of national roading projects may throw another spanner in the works. The draft schedule released in January listed Auckland as having 18 of the 20 most urgently listed projects. In a recently revised list only three have survived, some suggest because of the angry reception from the rest of country over a perceived inequity.

Even Transit’s first schedule would have left a massive funding shortfall for Auckland so the region’s mayors are lobbying central government for a national 10c-per-litre petrol tax. Although the proposed tax would be distributed regionally (by population) this scheme has not gone down well with the rest of the country either.

But fair or not, Auckland’s traffic congestion is imparting a huge toll on both the regional and national economy – to the tune of around $1 billion a year is the general consensus. It is a cost the Government is clearly concerned about. Finance Minister Michael Cullen has said a range of funding options are being considered to get the city moving and the Government is investigating burrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to help solve the region’s transport woes.

Banks can understand that any national levy will not be popular, but according to him the cost to the economy is reason enough for the rest of the country to help fix the problem.

"Auckland is responsible for a third of the country’s economic wealth," he says. "As the nation’s engine-room Auckland needs to do better if this country is to achieve our potential on the world stage. At the heart of the problem is the fact that Auckland’s economic infrastructure has been left unattended to for far too long. "When we complete the region’s motorway network the wins will be significant."

And yet Banks admits that there is "not a hope" of completing the network proposals without adequate finance, so where does the vision of an integrated and modern system stand in light of funding troubles - derailed or still on track? "The region’s mayors are collectively committed to completing our transport network and the Government is committed to giving us the tools to finance the $2.4 billion funding shortfall.

"We are working with the Government on specifics and we are working on timeframes. It is my commitment to have all the money bolted down by the end of the third quarter of this year. We are quietly confident the Government will deliver what we need to fix Auckland’s problems."

Will local government deliver though? No amount of money will fix the local-body bickering that some critics, Banks included, say continues to stall the transport system upgrades and has plagued the Britomart project since its inception.

While the Auckland Regional Transport Network Limited [ARTNL] provides public transport infrastructure like stations and railway lines, the ARC provides the transport services. Local councils have no authority to do anything about the graffiti covered stations or the abysmal scheduling. Banks and Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey say the set-up is simply dysfunctional.

"The more the nightmare goes on with transport and rail the more people will realise it’s not working," says Harvey. "It’s not working because of the infrastructure around us [the region’s mayors]. We’re not getting the delivery because ARTNL and the ARC cannot agree to agree."

Banks says all the mayors want ARTNL to take control and run the rail network in and out of Britomart but key players in the ARC pursuing "their own agendas" refuse to relinquish control.

An international consulting company has delivered the region an ambitious draft, aiming to increase train patronage in Auckland from the present 2.24 million journeys a year to 25 million by 2015. Banks says the ARC has yet to approve the plan.

"We have confidence that they [ARTNL] can run it to a world-class standard, but I don’t have any confidence in the long-term transport in Auckland run by the ARC," says Banks. "I have no confidence that they can deliver and they need one hell of a shake-up – they’ve performed hopelessly."

Banks adds that, "fortunately", ARTNL has recently received $22 million of funding from Infrastructure Auckland. That money is to go towards improving signature stations throughout the greater Auckland area, yet it seems that much sorting out lies ahead if passenger rail is to transform the face of transport in and around the region.

That’s what has got residents so riled – as with Britomart there is a massive amount of spending but at the moment it all appears to be superficial. Furthermore, North Shore and Rodney District ratepayers say they are paying for a rail network that doesn’t even service their area. The ARC’s response is that the residents benefit from other public transport projects.

But Harvey was similarly unimpressed, albeit for slightly different reasons, after his first jaunt into the "super station". In the Herald he wrote of the experience: "I wanted more than what was delivered. I am bitterly unhappy that a great opportunity for a city as dazzling and stylish as Auckland has been lost…" In line with Waitakere’s "eco-city" mandate, he has been an outspoken advocate of light rail.

A spokesman from Harvey’s office says the decision to pursue heavy rail was a "major setback" for Waitakere because diesel-engine trains create excessive noise and particle pollution, in addition to other shortcomings.

"Light rail also offers a safer capacity to run trains on lighter rail through town centres – to shopping complexes and entertainment venues," says the spokesman.

Having lost the vote on light rail as an option for the region, Waitakere City Council is lobbying ARTNL for electrification and double tracking of the northwest line to improve the speed and reliability of the service.

Banks’ predecessor was also in favour of light rail but the mayor mocks that proposal as having "about as much support as Christine Fletcher had on election-day".

"Not only was it going to be very expensive but it was also slightly wacky," says Banks. "A $1.8 billion light rail network across the grid-locked streets of Auckland would have brought the city traffic to a standstill. We have committed to heavy rail, electrification and extending services."

They may not see eye to eye on the rail network, but Banks and Harvey have a shared consensus on the future of the Whenuapai Airbase when the Air Force moves to Ohakea sometime within the next five years. After the Government announced the closure of the military air facility, Harvey and his counterparts at North Shore (George Wood) and Rodney (John Law) collectively put the hand up to say they wanted the land to establish a second commercial airport. The Auckland City mayor sees merit in the proposal too.

"I am totally committed to maintaining the open space at Whenuapai for future public use, including an airport," says Banks. "I don’t want to see it carved up into state housing – I don’t want to see a fine open space like that transformed into an urban ghetto. Not that I’m against state housing, but we have so little open space left in this city we need to preserve what we’ve got."

The Whenuapai Airbase was Auckland’s main airport from 1954 to 1965, before the international airport opened in Mangere. While the runway at the site would not be able to handle anything much larger than a Boeing 737, Harvey and his associates say most of the infrastructure is already in place to cater for domestic and smaller transtasman and Pacific flights.

The standing joke in the city is that it can take longer to drive to Auckland Airport from the North Shore than it takes to fly to Wellington. Harvey is not laughing though, he’s deadly serious.

"Many Aucklanders have had the frustration of having to leave home for any flight from Mangere hours and hours before the actual departure time, simply because there is so much traffic congestion on the road slowing us all up."

He says a second airport at Whenuapai will offer travellers a faster alternative. Which makes sense if funding can be found for roading plans in the area - new motorway construction proposals, from the northwest of Harvey’s city to the North Shore, run right past the site.

But cutting down commuting time is not the only benefit supporters envisage for a second airport. Late last year Harvey informed a Waitakere City Development Committee of the significance of the airbase as a "strategic asset". He said its current military operations contribute approximately $60 million to the local and sub-regional economies of the northwest of the greater Auckland area.

Housing Minister Steve Maharey has said the Housing Corporation is negotiating to buy some of the land at the now defunct Hobsonville airbase – waterfront property that locals say is "prime real estate" - for state housing. It’s little wonder then that the mayors are so keen to get their hands on the land at Whenuapai rather than see it similarly carved up into lots by Housing New Zealand as is proposed for the site across the road.

Harvey says the region, as a whole, cannot afford to lose tens of millions of dollars generated by the airbase without it being replaced.

"While the eventual departure of the air force is a significant loss to the economy, it also represents a great opportunity to bring new life into the area," he says. "The development of a commercial airport at Whenuapai makes sense at so many levels, and Waitakere City looks forward to pursuing this option with both regional and central government support."

However, shortly after the mayors announced their plan, Michael Cullen said it was unlikely such dreams would get off the ground. Cullen even found an unlikely ally in National Party Helensville MP and Associate Spokesman for Transport and Commerce John Key.

Key published a statement on his website which says: "Living close to an airport sounds like a good idea – unless you are one of the unfortunate homeowners on the flight path, or the project ends up a financial lemon, in which case it could leave a sour taste in ratepayers’ mouths."

He goes on to suggest that "perhaps Whenuapai Airbase can – and will – be converted into Auckland’s second airport", but he warns ratepayers of the potential price.

According to Key’s figures, it will cost around $30 million to patch the "worn-out cement slab" runway at Whenuapai – Auckland Airport intends to spend $70 million on its second runway, which is due to be completed in 2006.

"Don’t forget to factor in the other requirements for a modern, commercial airport – efficient terminals, fuel storage, car parks and shops," adds Key.

Auckland Airport’s 2002 financial figures show its gross income for 2001 was $201 million. A little over a quarter of that was generated by 71,000 plane landings, with the balance made up of parking fees and terminal and commercial property leases.

Key believes that at one-fifth the size of Auckland Airport, Whenuapai is unlikely to be able to reap the same handsome rewards.

"These space constraints will dictate smaller airlines and charter flights, resulting in lower landing fees and fewer passengers for its shops. That spells out a greatly reduced income.

"Whenuapai, as a commercial airport, would create some jobs but not many unless it can challenge Auckland Airport head on and that is unlikely.

"Whenuapai is worth preserving but only as a military airfield, not some second-rate, loss-making commercial folly destined to bleed dry the local ratepayers."

Any commercial airport at Whenuapai would also need new resource consents for noise, aesthetic and emission pollution, and would likely face strong opposition from neighbouring residents. Although Auckland Airport is situated in an area classified as ‘industrial’, work on the northern runway faced significant delays while submissions were worked through.

Investigate offered Harvey a chance to discuss Key’s claims but the mayor said he was running late for a meeting and could only offer the following brief statement: "John Key believes that the airport is absolutely essential. He’s double dealing here. He is terrified of being fired by his electorate because some people are concerned about the proposal."

Harvey is confident his hopes haven’t been dashed yet. "It’s very much alive and well, the process has just been slowed somewhat." A spokesman for the mayor is able to confirm that budget airline Virgin Blue is interested in using Whenuapai as its centre of operations and Infratil, a commercial operator, has a written agreement with Waitakere City Council to run the airport if the Government does approve the venture.

Harvey’s office says the Beehive was expected to announce what will happen to the airbase at the end of July but, because of the debate generated, the decision has been stalled. The outcome is not anticipated until the end of August now.

Whether the region requires another airport or not is clearly a contentious issue, but the result of putting the brakes on Auckland’s infrastructure needs is more clear-cut. One only needs to look to Los Angeles as an example of where we might be headed. The Auckland skyline is crowded with cranes and the region is still experiencing a construction boom. More investment, more jobs, more progress all indicate greater demand is going to be placed on resources already under immense strain.

Auckland already has the second greatest urban sprawl (per capita) in the world, next to LA, and the population of the region continues to expand rapidly. In 20 years’ time the number of cars in Auckland is expected to double - commuting times only seem set to increase.

Residents can gripe about increased rates and in the end the majority will decide if the mayors’ vision for the city is 20/20. But perhaps Aucklanders have to come to terms with the fact that there is a cost associated with living in a large cosmopolitan city because, as Banks suggests, "Doing nothing is no longer an option."

If fixing Auckland’s economic infrastructure is really the key to unlocking the city’s potential and delivering benefits to the nation, New Zealanders can either embrace the new city and support its development or gamble that the purveyors of gloom have got it wrong.

The first strokes of the surgeon’s scalpel have touched the face of Auckland but anyone who has ever been caught in a clogged arterial jam understands it will take a lot more than a cosmetic makeover to get the city moving again.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:57 AM | Comments (1)