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New Zealand's Promising Embrace of Renewable Energy

The country currently relies more on geothermal power than on gas—but its neighbor Australia is still clinging to coal.

Danielle Street

The Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu. Image via WikiCommons user Christian Mehlführer

New Zealand is currently going through an unseasonably dry autumn, meaning the country's power-producing hydro lakes are unusually empty. This would normally be cause for concern, but the country's investment geothermal power means no one is too worried.

Broadly speaking, geothermal power refers to energy stored and extracted from the Earth's molten interior. As you might know, the planet's core sits at around 5,000 degrees Celsius. Fractures in the crust allow magma to rise towards the surface, forming volcanos and superheating ground water. Sitting over the divide between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, New Zealand is littered with volcanic zones and geothermal mud fields. To harness this energy, Kiwi power stations use the steam from hot groundwater to drive turbines to generate electricity. Geothermal power uses an energy source that would otherwise be wasted and, unlike other planet-friendly options such as solar and wind, it's effectiveness isn't dependent on weather patterns.

Harnessing the energy from this natural resource has a fairly lengthy history in the young country. Before the arrival of Europeans, hot springs were utilized by Maori for heating, cooking and preserving food. In more recent times, the nation's government has started looking at geothermal activity beyond its ability to pull tourists. This resource was first commercially tapped in the 1950s, but it's only in the last decade that it's really began attracting investment.

The Wairakei Geothermal Power Plant. Image via Wiki Commons.

Over the last six years the New Zealand government has invested $2 billion in the development of geothermal plants, and they're now generating more power than gas. In the year ending in October 2014, geothermal generation accounted for 16.3 percent of total energy, compared to 15.8 percent for gas. This may seem like peanuts, but according to the Minister of Energy and Resources, Simon Bridges, the current geothermal renaissance puts the country on a path to hit the target of 90 percent renewable generation by 2025. As Bridges boasted at the Geothermal Congress this month, New Zealand is now the fifth-largest geothermal power generator in the world.

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It's not just electricity providers that are profiting from geothermal. Several other businesses have jumped on the bandwagon, including the Maori-controlled dairy provider Miraka. The company, which opened in 2011, now transforms 250 million liters of milk into powders and UHT products annually, successfully illustrating the validity of geothermal energy for other large-scale operations.

The Warkworth Coal Mine in Australia's Hunter Valley. This controversial mine received planning approval for an extension earlier this year. Image via Flickr user Lock the Gate Alliance.

Across the ditch in Australia, a country with more than five times the population and 28 times the land mass, the governing party seems increasingly fixated on fossil fuels. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced at the opening of a coal mine last year "Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world." Tellingly, the continent has a climate policy that is set to expire in 2020.

Australia led in the field of solar energy during the 1980s, but a switch in government in the 1990s saw coal again became the country's core energy source, right up until 2012 when the Clean Energy Plan was initiated. But the 2013 election reinstalled the Liberal Party back in power and most elements of the plan were scrapped, including Australia's controversial carbon tax. As the current legislation also puts no onus on energy distributors to purchase renewable energy, the future of solar farms on the world's most solar-drenched nation remains in limbo.

And that doesn't seem likely to change. Just last month the Honorable Ian Macfarlane, Minister for Industry and Science, threatened to walk out of a negotiations meeting when the Clean Energy Council turned down the government's request to cut the Renewable Energy Target by nearly a quarter. That cut would have meant reduced targets for integrating renewable energy into Australia's power supply, which is a clear backwards step for sustainability. With the Science Portfolio rolled in with industry, it's no wonder Australia is being left in the dust in the renewables race, while New Zealand steams ahead.

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