Not every farmer wants power pylons on their land. But they areneeded to cope with growing electricity demand.

MPs yesterday had to confront the real cost of using electricity to move to net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

The country’s grid operator told a Select Committee of their many challenges, ranging from staff shortages to planning issues and decades-old crucial equipment.

But the immediate problem is that Transpower is not entirely sure whether we can get through the winter without “outages”.

Delays in the commissioning of a new wind farm and a geothermal plant have left the country (should there be any significant dry weather)  dependent on alternative forms of generation at the same time as gas supplies are beginning to dwindle.

Nine days ago, Transpower released a little-noticed paper which set out the situation in bleak terms.

“We may be operating with reduced reserves during the coldest evening peaks with low intermittent generation, leaving the system vulnerable to changing conditions or sudden faults,” the paper said.

“This could lead to demand management, which could include power cuts.”

What Transpower fears is a repeat of last year, when Genesis Energy’s coal-fired Huntly power station was out of action in June and into July.

It will all depend on hydro lake inflows, which are currently high.

Transpower reported on Wednesday that national hydro storage was at 103% of the historical mean. South Island storage was at 98% of the average for this time of year, while North Island storage was at 160% of the historical mean.

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But summer is not yet over, and a prolonged dry spell could radically change those figures.

What worries Transpower is that apart from the risk of Huntly breaking down, there are other factors that mean the ability to make up for any reduction in hydropower might be limited.

Their paper lists these as reduced gas available for thermal generation and project delays placing greater pressure on existing hydro resources.

Those delays refer to Contact’s Tauhara Geothermal Plant which is now not expected to come on line till the third quarter this year having been projected to do so in the first quarter.

And Meridian’s Harapaki wind farm near Napier, which will be the country’s second-largest, has been delayed because of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that New Zealand is starting to run out of natural gas.

“There  is reduced gas production forecast in 2024, which reduces the gas available for thermal electricity generation,” Transpower’s paper said.“

“Securing additional gas (i.e. gas reallocation arrangements with the petrochemical sector), as well as running additional coal-fired generation, will help mitigate this risk.

“We are currently unaware of any gas reallocation arrangements for 2024. “

Appearing before Parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee yesterday, Alison Andrew, the Transpower CEO, said they were anticipating a tight winter.

“ The gas supply is not as secure. There have been some recent, very high inflows into the hydro catchment. So we’re sitting on a good energy position from one to, from a water perspective,” she said.

“But anything can change in that time in the lead-up to winter. But the industry is working very hard to make sure that we keep the lights on.”

However, the challenge facing the industry is how to avoid these situations in the future as electricity demand increases as the country electrifies to meet its 2040  carbon commitment.

While National during the election campaign made much of what they claimed was the unduly protracted time it took to consent a windfarm, it seems there is as big, if not bigger problem, getting consents to run new grid power lines across farmland.

Those lines will be needed to carry the extra electricity generated by new solar and wind generators.

In some places, without new power lines, it might not be possible to connect new solar generators to the grid at all.

And here, Transpower runs up against the rural equivalent of NIMBYism  (not in my backyard).

“Solar is really important to look at because it’s getting lower cost, and there’s quite an appetite for investment in solar,” said Transpower chair Kieth Turner.

“And if you look across the Tasman, that’s the dominant form of investment going on.

 “Our problem is if a solar connector connection wants to turn up at a part of the grid that’s got capacity, we can do that quite quickly.

“But if they want to turn up at a part of the grid that is constrained, especially if it’s constrained for major power flows, it takes us ten years to build a new line.”

Turner said that New Zealand had built surplus transmission capacity in the 50s and 60s and had lived off that ever since, but the time had now come when a substantial upgrade was needed.

Andrew said Transpower had the right to go on to properties to maintain existing lines.

“But any time we want to build a new line, or we want to enhance a line which causes a visual impact on the landowner, we have to negotiate an easement,” she said.

“And that is a negotiation, which is not necessarily fair.

“The process is an open one. You have to agree on the valuation of the land, etc.

“We do have final rights for compulsory acquisition under the Public Works Act, but Transpower’s rights are quite weak, and that’s where we can tie ourselves up in a  very long time negotiating with landowners.

“You can have people who decide to hold out for money.

“Others like Waka  Kotahi have stronger rights under the Public Works Act, but they still struggle with this issue of how you actually get a clear easement.

“We don’t need to occupy the whole land; we just need an easement to put our towers up and through.

“That can be very challenging.”

But ensuring the lights stay on may depend on those towers going up. This winter may be a warning.