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Pacific Ecologist

Sustainability at home with sun and wind

In this interview, CHARMAINE WATTS, renewable energy pioneer, explains how within a year she and her family planned and developed their energy needs to be supplied by wind and solar power. Charmaine later went on to found a group in support of a wind farm in her area which was being opposed by a vocal minority.
Interview by Pacific Ecologist editor, Kay Weir

What concerns motivated you to take action to become energy independent at home?

My partner, Norman Petereit, our children and I live on 38 acres at Waipipi on the Awhitu Peninsula, about an hour from Auckland. I was born in New Zealand. Norman, my partner, whom I met while living in Sydney is Australian (but we won't hold that against him!). In 1994 we moved to Auckland and bought a 10-acre lifestyle block in Waiau Pa. About this time we became interested in organic gardening and Permaculture. We both completed a Permaculture Certificate course in 1999 at Otamatea Eco-Village; this had a huge impact on our lives and really consolidated everything we had been feeling intuitively for the last few years on the need to lessen the environmental burden human beings are having on the earth. We then purchased a larger property (38 acres) on the Awhitu Peninsula with a view to living a more sustainable lifestyle. Our property has a fantastic wind resource so our sustainable living goal started by using wind & solar to generate our own electricity and keep our "barn" style house off the grid. My partner Norman has an IT back ground, I have a biological science background and am completing a BSc App at the Auckland University of Technology, with a view to post-graduate study in 2006.

How supportive was the family towards the energy independence project?

We have three daughters, from 17 years old (our eldest is currently at AUT studying Marketing), and another daughter who is 14, and the youngest is 10. The girls were quite young when we began the changes to our lives so they did not have a lot of input (although I do recall some objections to changing schools). They seem to understand what we are doing better as they are growing up and tend to accept it as normal.

What were the steps taken to bring it about?

Developing our own energy supply took about a year from concept to commissioning. The hardest part was living without electricity for a year. Norman "coped" with no electricity better than the rest of us (but then he is also the sort of guy who is quite happy living under a bivouac!). Weaning ourselves from TV was hard; the girls were so desperate they made a TV out of a cardboard box and drew a screen!

Able Solar was the company which provided us with the wind turbine and solar panels, the size and number of these was calculated from a questionnaire we had to fill in which asked questions about our energy consumption. We had to organize the engineering of a suitably strong steel frame to mount the 6 panels and also a "tower" to mount the wind turbine. This is an old tram track set in concrete.

Was it difficult to do?

Certainly more difficult and a greater learning curve first time round, but like any new project the next time would be much easier.

How much did it cost both in money and time? Are costs outside the reach of most people?

The whole renewable energy system cost about $20, 000, this includes household wiring. There is no form of subsidy from any agencies for this scale of project, so it may be easier in a new building to set aside a budget for an alternate power system otherwise you can throw as much money as you like into these things depending on what you want to achieve. In a lot of ways it probably is outside the reach of most people, particularly in urban areas where it is more difficult to use larger wind turbines and therefore reduces the amount of power able to be produced.

Is there any ongoing work to do on the equipment?

Just topping up the batteries with distilled water and lowering the turbine about once a year to do maintenance on the blades.

Would you do it all again?

Yes, definitely.

Learning from your experience, what would you suggest to others wanting to do as you have done?

It was hard going initially as we did not fully appreciate how much of an adjustment we would have to make to achieve our aims of living a more sustainable lifestyle. I don't think there are any shortcuts to this process as working through the various challenges once you decide to try and live a more sustainable lifestyle and making the necessary adjustments (especially attitude) is an integral part of realising that the average person really requires very little to have a good quality of life. I decided I could cope while making these changes as long as I had hot water, good quality food, a clean, dry bed and some private space.

Why are you supporting wind farms, when people can do as you have done?

Even though we generate our own electricity, we are still part of the community and the development of renewable energy has benefits locally, nationally and globally. The mindset for most people though is for large-scale energy production and wind farms meet this criteria. I think the idea of wide-spread power generation by individual households is just too difficult for many people to tackle. It's all related to economies of scale, so I wouldn't expect a large uptake by people until costs come down or a serious subsidy type scheme is implemented.

Tell us about your involvement with WISE - (Waiuku in Support of Wind Energy) at Awhitu?

I became interested in the Awhitu wind farm project when Genesis Energy made public its proposal. Norm and I made supporting consent submissions and I presented mine personally at the hearing. We also wrote letters to the editor to our local newspaper in support of the wind farm, to combat the misinformation being published by an anti-wind farm group calling themselves the Waiuku Wind farm Information Group (WWIG).

I formed WISE (Waiuku In Support of Wind Energy) in response to consent for the wind farm being declined, as I felt, the majority of the community supported the proposal. A vocal few, with the help of the community newspaper's local reporter, also a member of the anti-wind farm group!, had given the impression there was a largely dissenting public, against the wind farm. TV and radio media were only to happy to pick up on this and were portraying the issue as the community largely opposed to the wind farm.

I joined the Environment Court hearing as a party to the proceedings which enabled me to present to the Court the level of support for the wind farm confirmed by results of a statistically valid, peer-reviewed opinion poll initiated by WISE, where a questionnaire was sent to 500 randomly selected households. The results showed 70% of the community were in support of the wind farm, 15% were neutral and in fact only 13% were opposed.

The Environment Court recently granted resource consent to develop the wind farm, however those opposed at the last minute, lodged an appeal with the High Court on the grounds of insufficient weighting being given by the court to the minimal contribution the 18MW wind farm would have on minimizing greenhouse gases and its contribution to the electricity requirements of New Zealand compared (in their opinion) to the adverse effects the wind farm would have on the natural landscape. Thankfully (today) the anti-wind farm group withdrew their High Court appeal and have agreed to a range of sensible consent conditions.

A major criticism made about wind turbines is that they are too noisy. What are your observations on this, from your experience and studies?

Generally, people who make this type of criticism have never visited a wind farm. If they had they would have experienced hearing the noise of the wind over and above the noise of the turbines. The reality is, wind turbines do make noise, but the noise is minimal. To cite an example, at the recent Meridian Energy hearing for consent to build a wind-farm at Makara, a noise "expert," called by those in opposition to the wind-farm, stated that the 40dBA sound limit restriction for wind turbines as required by the New Zealand Noise Standard for wind turbines was "very loud." To demonstrate this he measured the noise in the silenced resource hearing room in front of the hearing's Commissioners. Much to his consternation, the "expert" found the background noise in the quiet room was measured at 60dBA, 20 points up from the turbine noise limit! This is a clear demonstration that the background noise around you while you are sitting in your lounge chatting to your family is greater than the noise you can expect from a wind turbine.

So New Zealand's noise standards for wind turbines are that the noise must be less than the "noise" from a quiet room? This seems to be rather too high!

Not really the noise standard, NZS 6808, is a fair and adequate standard for the purposes of assessing and measuring sound from wind turbines. The point is the noise is no greater than and in fact substantially less than many sources of noise from everyday life, from the hum of an air-conditioning unit, to road traffic or a group of people talking. The other factor of course is that people's perception and attitudes have a bearing on the level of annoyance on the noise they hear, like different tastes in music!

I hear you travelled to Germany recently with funding from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency, (EECA)?

Yes, I received funding from EECA to attend the inaugural Wind Turbine Noise Conference held in Berlin, Germany on the 16-18th October 2005. I was invited by the conference organisers to talk about my work in support of the WAIUKU wind farm and spoke about my experiences as founder and organiser of WISE. The research became part of my work as an undergraduate at the Auckland University of Technology. My paper,1 has now been recognised internationally having recently been published by the Australian Environmental Health Journal.

Do you think government should implement any policies to make it easier to switch to renewable energy, important these days both from climate change perspectives and the depletion of fossil fuels?

It would be very simple to encourage all new houses to install solar panels on the roof for hot water heating. Also it would not be too difficult to encourage manufactures to develop energy-efficient appliances.

How long will it take for the financial investment you made in energy independence to be returned?

We didn't really consider this aspect too much as it was a lot more to do with our philosophy than anything. I believe the return for solar power is about 3-4years, but given what we have spent (say $20,000) and an average monthly power bill is $150 it will take about 11 years to pay back. I think we can safely say though that the cost of power won't be coming down and the payback period will reduce.

Does living with a renewable energy household require a different life style and values to the norm of today's consumer society?

There are differences and I think as a general rule most people (in a developed country such as NZ) will find it difficult giving anything up. We are creatures of habit and most people don't know anything outside of the type of sedentary, disposable lifestyle they are used to. It's hard to take things away and say it's a better life. Unfortunately I don't think we will learn our lessons until we see some major problems emerging. Even then most people only complain about why the governments or agencies didn't do something rather than doing something themselves to make changes.

What are the benefits?

Just not being reliant on a utility for one of our services is a bonus. Having the weather impact on your power needs on a daily basis, also makes you more aware of what is going on around you in the environment, so we are not as "out of touch" with nature. Being sometimes restricted, despite having a tv and a home theatre, forces us to look to other forms of entertainment. Consequently, all our daughters reading, writing and comprehension skills have increased greatly over the past few years through spending more time reading.

Charmaine Watts is finishing her studies in 2005 at Auckland Institute of Technology and plans to teach in 2006. Besides speaking in October 2005 at the German conference on Wind Turbine Noise, Charmaine also spoke at the NZ Wind Energy conference held 30 August - 1 Sept 2005.


[1] "Public Opinion of a proposed Wind Farm Situated Close to a Populated Area in New Zealand: Results from a Cross-Sectional Study," by Charmaine Watts, published in November 2005 in the "Journal of Environmental Health," Australia.

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