sign uplog in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

Climate Change Commissioner Rod Carr on the need for a national energy plan, what to do with Tiwai Point's electricity, decarbonising transport and more

Climate Change Commissioner Rod Carr on the need for a national energy plan, what to do with Tiwai Point's electricity, decarbonising transport and more

By Gareth Vaughan

Climate Change Commissioner Rod Carr says New Zealand needs a national energy plan covering the next 30 years.

Speaking to in a Zoom interview Carr said there's no single silver bullet to meet New Zealand's energy requirements in a climate friendly way.

"We're going to need to solve the dry year problem, we're going to need to increase geothermal output, we're going to need wind and solar. What we really need is a national energy plan for the next 30 years," Carr said.

"What we have to remember is we're going to need to do a range of things. There is no single silver bullet where we go 'we did that, we're done, we move on'." 

Last weekend Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods announced the Government will investigate the potential use of pumped hydro to reduce the need for coal and gas fired energy generation in dry years. Pumped hydro moves water to an upper reservoir when there is surplus renewable energy generation and demand for electricity is low. It's released back down to a hydro power station to generate electricity when demand is high, Woods said.

Carr said the important aspect of the government announcement was looking at alternatives so all of New Zealand can have confidence that we haven't missed obvious better options before we choose whichever option we ultimately go for. He wants New Zealanders to understand there is no free lunch.

"...We have chosen quite appropriately, and are unlikely to choose otherwise in my lifetime, not to have nuclear power. We are adverse to damming bodies of water and interrupting their natural flow, we like to protect our landscapes against the intrusion of wind turbines, and we don't like our neighbours having large solar arrays. But at some point if we are going to reduce our emissions from carbon fuels,... we have to increase the amount of electricity we generate. And we have to generate that electricity not from coal, gas and oil unless we find substantial technologies to capture carbon at the point of combustion and sequester it permanently. And the issue with that is that there are no cost effective technologies widely available today," said Carr.

Additionally he said we need to address the issue that whilst hydro might be "beautifully renewable," it's not infinitely expandable.

"There are only a limited number of places and spaces that can be dammed and an even smaller proportion that New Zealanders tolerate being dammed. So we cannot keep expanding hydro forever. We need to make efficient use of the energy that we already generate, and that's why home insulation and other energy efficiency uses are critical in our own energy pathway and planning."

"Further, we've seen some conversations about the problem of the dry year, when there is not enough inflow into the hydro lakes to offset the winter use. That leads to the consequence that we need to have other forms of storage of energy to cover for hydro. There are a number of possible alternatives and the Government has recently announced sufficient funding to look into the business cases for a number of those options. The high profile one is obviously the pump storage at Onslow. But there may be a number of other smaller scale pump storage options that could be evaluated alongside that option together with other alternatives," said Carr.

Electrification of the South Island

With Rio Tinto's Tiwai Point aluminium smelter seemingly set to close, Carr said the electricity it consumes could be put to good use elsewhere. The smelter uses about 13% of New Zealand's electricity output, which is supplied by Meridian's Manapōuri hydro power station.

"The Manapōuri output, which is about 500 megawatt hours, could almost all be absorbed in the electrification of the South Island. So if you were to electrify low temperature processed heat in the dairy factories and the glass houses, and do that at a cost effective point for electricity, and you were to electrify a reasonable chunk of ground transportation - trains, buses, and motor vehicles, and you were to electrify residential and commercial heating of spaces, then a large proportion of the leftover power with Tiwai's departure could be absorbed in the South Island," Carr said.

In terms of transport Carr notes people value point-to-point personal transportation highly. Electrification of the vehicle fleet is a key way to reduce emissions from our petrol and diesel powered vehicles, Carr said. Currently he estimates there are about 20,000 fully electric vehicles in the New Zealand fleet of nearly 4.5 million.

"One of the solutions that is emerging globally is obviously the development and uptake of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles. And the infrastructure to support that uptake, particularly of fully EV plug-ins, needs to be developed ahead of demand otherwise the demand is simply not going to emerge as quickly. So that's about charging stations, it's about upgrading our home charging capabilities, and it's also about the technology emerging to reduce what is known as range anxiety."

"But I don't see in my life time people willingly giving up the point to point mobility at a scale that we need in order to get off the fossil fuel emissions...So the electrification of ground transportation will be a critical part in New Zealand reducing its emissions," said Carr.

"In addition there are reasons to believe that New Zealanders will benefit by a move to electrification of ground transportation by the production of renewable electricity. We will reduce our dependence to the volatility and vulnerability from imported oil. So there is an opportunity for New Zealand to not only move to a lower emissions transportation fleet, but also one that is able to be domestically resourced."

Higher density in our cities could also help.

"It is also possible to think of a different model of public transport in which we think more of transport as a service, where we create smaller vehicles, more frequently picking up and dropping off at a wider range of points more closely representing the personal mobility that an owned vehicle may give you. So transport as a service we've come to assume means trains and buses rather than personal vehicles. And there may be emerging technologies closer to the middle of this century that allow drones or autonomous vehicles to increase both the frequency of publicly provided transport services, but also the pickup and drop off points which would be available and accessible," Carr said.

"So urban form matters a lot, where we build, what we build so that we can live close to alternative modes of transport. Electrification of that transport, be it in-city trains and buses or inter-city trains and buses, does represent a significant opportunity to decarbonise public transport as we know it today."

'Alternatives to the diesel and petrol driven freight system is going to be challenging'

Carr also points out the major role of transporting freight.

"Of course freight is a non-trivial part of what goes on in our transport fleet and the ability to develop low emission, or no emission alternatives to the current diesel and petrol driven freight system is going to be challenging. There may be ways in which we can increase the utilisation of existing capacity. Often our vehicles are full on the journey out, but not necessarily on the journey back. And that may be about information asymmetries, it may be about the fragmentation, the ownership of the freight fleet," said Carr. 

"We don't necessarily have simple answers. But we know if we can actually increase the utilisation of the freight fleet from roughly 50% utilised to 70% utilised that would be a dramatic improvement in emissions per kilometre travelled. In addition if we can get to the point where people choose multi modes rather than just being a user of public transport or a private vehicle, maybe one day a week people choose to take public transport, maybe two days a week they choose to work from home, there will be options here to reduce emissions that aren't necessarily about eliminating emissions but at least it's a pathway to reduction."

In the video Carr also talks about air and marine travel through a climate change lens. He splits air travel into long and short haul, noting it's conceivable a Cook Strait hop by electric plane might be possible by about 2030. For longer haul flights he suggests biofuels may be the only likely way of getting carbon dioxide emissions out of long haul air travel, but will be expensive.

Following on from an earlier Zoom interview with in April, Carr also touches on the challenges for climate friendly travel for overseas tourists.

"It may well be the case that while mass market, long haul, high volume, low margin tourism is going to be a feature of our history not of our future, it is still conceivable that tourists will come to New Zealand and will arrive here and leave here on flights that are fuelled by biofuels rather than fossil fuels," said Carr.

"In 1980 we had about 400,000 international visitors and by 2018 we had four million...Covid has essentially chopped it [overseas tourism] off at the ankles. What we need to do is make sure that the sector that we rebuild is fit for purpose in the 21st century in a thriving, climate resilient, low emissions Aotearoa."

In terms of climate friendly marine travel Carr notes experimentation with electric tugs and ferries, and potential for the use of biodiesel.

"For long haul seafreight hydrogen could be an option. But I wouldn't bank on that much before the middle of next decade," said Carr.

The Climate Change Commission is a Crown entity established under the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act to provide independent, evidence-based advice to government to help New Zealand "transition to a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy." It's also tasked with monitoring and reviewing the Government’s progress towards emissions reduction and adaptation goals.

In April Carr sent a letter to Minister for Climate Change James Shaw, copying in other ministers including Finance Minister Grant Robertson. In it he encouraged the Government to "put a climate change lens" across the measures chosen to help drive an economic recovery. The letter offers six principles for the Government to follow, which can be seen here.

Carr is the former vice chancellor of the University of Canterbury and former deputy governor and chairman of the Reserve Bank. He's also an independent director of ASB, and former managing director of Jade Software. He has a PhD in insurance and risk management.

*This article was first published in our email for paying subscribers. See here for more details and how to subscribe.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


I really like Carr. I am not sure how feasible some of his ideas are (i.e. electrifying SI), but he seems to be the right person to lead this Climate Change Commission.

In my personal opinion, the reliance on fossil fuel in NZ case is not only a Climate Change issue, but is a strategic issue. the more NZ can electrify, the better. And this is where smart kiwis with bright ideas can perform magics that will result in drastic reduction in CO2 emission. Not all the CC cult who only know to scream and virtue signal without affecting an iota of CO2 emission.

We need our government to help facilitate the research required but also design policy that encourages risk takers to commercialise any ideas they come up with. It could grow into a strategic advantage down the track, I agree

It's far too late for research, you have to go with tech you have.

But evaluate and compare by all means.

Carr is the best voice (getting heard) in the country at the moment. But I think events will overtake the discussion; even then I'd like him in on the triage. Heck, he'd be a good Minister of Infrastructure. Great piece; thanks

His credentials would make him an absolute no-brainer as Minister of Infrastructure.
PDK - do you think NZ is capable and willing to not only design a plan but actually see it through to completion?

Has he delivered on anything?
They can hire people with Quals in any subject, what this COL hasn't got is people that deliver.

Yep hours and hours on facebook just don't cut it...
Here is Winston honoring the fact he has been a massive handbrake to COL as many COL ideas were just wrong...

P.S. Zero Carbon Act will go the same way as RMA..
- it doesn't work....

Chilling out on Climate.
Global emissions v Global omissions.
Naill Ferguson
John Cochrane
Bjorn Lomborg

Remember NZ costings for zero carbon bill is 16% GDP each & every year.
Forget Kiwibuild, we are building the Poorhouse.

It is irresponsible to publish costs on doing something without also adding the costs of doing nothing.

Give over, HT. Lomborg has long been discredited.

As has human-induced climate denial (which he is intelligent enough to fudge; acknoledging but can-kicking is his modus operandi)

And the option of being like Australia, and using gas, concentrate on lowering cost of energy, lift up people out of poverty.

A presentation on the final report of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission (NCCC) manufacturing taskforce, seen by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, recommends "cutting red and green tape" to help the gas industry rapidly increase gas extraction and create up to 170,000 manufacturing jobs.

The issue for me is that all we're doing is outsourcing pollution. New Zealanders will continue to buy aluminium product imported from countries where it can be made with cheap coal energy.

Our goal, and measures of success, should be changing consumer behaviours.

The world desperately needs the will to charge the actual cost of emitting carbon when buying Something. If this was charged then the clean energy that Tiwai uses would make its aluminium very cheap in comparison. Technologies such as block chain Could reliably track the emissions of a product. Its the political will and the will of people that is our problem.

No, sorry. Blockchain is part of the problem; it takes energy and currently that's largely fossil. The problem is our unsustainable energy-use; CC is merely the exhaust-gases of the burn. And money is debt-issued, so it is merely a bet that there will be energy in the future. You can't measure using money - it doesn't relate to anything, which is why we are in trouble.

"Our goal ... should be changing consumer behaviours"

To not consuming
Thats the only "green" option
Not so good for the economy im told

He seems completely sane, what a revelation. He's completely immersed himself, appearance and all, like some sort of method acting equivalent.

You expressed that well TK. I was half expecting someone (of the wingnut disposition) to comment on his appearance in a derogatory light. Your comment is much more relevant and not spiteful.

I have lockdown hair, the last time it was this long I was listening to BFM. I literally put it in a manbun the other day.

My god man, don’t mention the “P” word - folks might actually believe there is a role for government in planning and shaping an outcome!

Everyone knows that the “free market” will magically achieve the desired state through self-regulation, taking a long-term view of at last 3 quarters ahead, and maximising share holder value. If the market had wanted clean air and fusion reactors it would have invented them already.

Pretty certain I quelled the mutinous sentiments we saw there, so we can get back to being rockstar.

Well...I did hear John Key suggest in absolute seriousness very recently that the fact some people like to buy organic food means the free market will indeed sort out climate change issues adequately.

All just words when their history shows they can not implement. Warm fluffies forbthe masses.
Three years to act and failure at everything big. This coalition just needs to settle down and actually deliver on a couple of projects and learn to walk before they run.
We could actually start to believe them if they delivered, until then it is just words.

The root of the problem for NZ is that it is a tech follower in solving any problems mentioned above.

Given such a long term of 30 years, any uncertainty in tech development can either enhance or undermine proposed solutions.

I'd imagine NZ will have a couple of Nuclear powered stations in 30 years.

Carr is ex-VC at Canterbury Uni, which has an excellent Engineering faculty. So no surprise that he advances sound, engineering-based proposals and principles. My only two quibbles:

  1. the premonitory ruling out of nuclear. Even if for international freight, leaving out land-based plants, it has a great track record for reliability and safety.
  2. Pumped storage is a net electricity consumer. There are losses in the pumping to get the water perched, losses in the water itself (seepage, evaporation), losses in the generation on the way down the hill, and losses in the transmission. So all that has to be balanced against the benefits of dry-year certainty. And the geotech involved is formidable - Onslow/Manorburn, for a lake surface at 800m, would need a 100m high dam.

Still, given the fraught process for getting anything built these days, a 30-year plan does seem adequate, if barely so.....

Actually it doesn't. Fukushima and Christchurch have anything in common, off the top of your head? Then there's the wee problem of storage of radiaoactive waste for a few hundred years - essentially defrauding future generations of options both ways.

Yes, pumped storage is a net EROEI loser. But it can store for dry years, and it sure as hell is a proven way of knocking off the peaks of demand. And if we are generating intermittently, some storage is better than dumping if generation exceeds demand.

Or the problems of not storing it. Just google the name of any nuclear reactor in combination with the terms 'discharge', 'leak', 'cleanup', 'breach', 'accident', etc. To get you started, try 'Sellafield'.

An ex-banker and a University VC. Sounds good for a climate change commissioner? When you omit nuclear as an option you immediately paint yourself as a current Green (not necessarily Green Party in NZ). I notice hydro was part of his suggested mix. That would face almost as much opposition as nuclear. Flooding areas a no-no.

Pumped hydro works best in combination with other renewables. The excess energy produced during the day by solar or by intermittent wind can be stored in a hydro battery for later use.

The round trip efficiency of pumped hydro is 75-80%. This means you need to install 125-133% of your capacity - much more efficient than using renewables on their own which would need 300-500% capacity to guarantee supply.


No mention of population control to limit total energy demand; more people=more energy demand.

Can't do that. If the masses produced less kids they would be less reliant on handouts and then they may vote National.

Population increase in NZ is not due to the people already here, who are reproducing at below replacement level.

The NZ paddock is already more than 2X overstocked.

I'll pass. I'd prefer NZ not to become a vassal state of China in my lifetime.

For the love of god Kezza. We get it, you hate the current government and whilst claiming you also hate National, are obviously a National voter, so encourage others to do so.

What we don't need is every comment section covered in the same repeated opinion. You have become the comments chaff, it's almost impossible to find the good stuff because it's filled of "blah blah Labour can't deliver blah blah National are bad but prob not as bad as Labour blah blah blah".

An interesting piece, and agree by and large. I was hoping that he would address the elephant in the room: if there is any upscaling of moving to electricity for transportation, this will mean massive additional capacity, unless we are talking about e-bikes. The difference in efficiency for electricity to move a 75kg human as opposed to a 1.5 tonne of steel and plastic is enormous.

We should also be careful not to trade one environmental disaster for another. Back at the turn of last century, cars were seen as solving the "pollution" problem of cities suffocating on horse manure. Now we have to deal with carbon emissions. Electric cars everywhere means that at some point we will have to deal with disposal of a large number of very large dead batteries (also doesn't deal with another perennial urban problem: congestion).

Indeed: the current (sorry!) fleet of diesel A and B-trains for delivering FMCG to supermarkets is a case in point. These are essential logistics components which, if electrified via (e.g.) Tesla Trucks, would chew up a lotta rare earths, batteries, extension cables and suchlike. Glass half full: they'll get Elon Musk closer to his stated goal of Getting to Planet B (Mars).

And given the Ag objective of adding tens of billions to total exports, while simultaneously reducing carbon footprint, cleaning waterways, keeping consumer prices stable, and paying for the conversion costs, one seeks in vain for the Grand Plan for electrifying Ag processes such as planting, plowing, harvesting - all big, heavy and extremely mobile machines. Sure, mining uses big electric draglines - 1200 HP motors for hoist and drag, 750HP for swing - but the beasts are essentially static, and are powered by substantial extension cords. The 'plan' for Electric Ag in NZ? Crickets......

Ag objective indeed!
Yep, the electrifying policy looks like bringing back the 1 cylinder 2 stroke desiel technology - use to run em on butterfat (during the war).

Gotta love the dual use steering wheel

A few years ago a rough study pointed out that if Tiwai was to go, we could all drive Leafs with no more generation.

Maybe in the South Island. We are still constrained with getting Electricity North.

If it is the same study I saw it also included Huntly running at full capacity. So problem is really only transferred rather than solved.

drive leafs to where exactly?

to consume? to jobs to facilitate consumption?
the how of driving is irrelevant
the drawdown & leverage on resources cant let up or the economy implodes

Totally agree - just pointing out we could eliminate the current ICE vehicle fleet

A first step could be to inspect and fix or replace the old MEN electrical system we have in NZ. Who knows how much current leakage we have in this country.

There is already an acknowledged problem of shifting surplus Manapouri generation to markets further north; If that power is used to top up Lake Onslow that would be an efficient use from a transmission distance perspective, but ultimately when the water is finally used from Lake Onslow the power it generates is still in the wrong place, just a little bit less so.

Despite the emphasis in the comments thread on onshore electricity, the bigger issue is, as Carr pinpoints, long haul seafreight. Dependent as we are on export tonnage (dairy, sheep, beef etc) to fund our current standard of living, and given the fact that international shipping is fuelled by bunker oil, a useful research element will be to look at alternative propulsion fuels. As my previous comment noted, nuclear is a proven zero-carbon possibility. Carr notes hydrogen, but Tangaroa is a cruel mistress and a marine Hindenburg is a precautionary-principle nightmare. There's always Sail, so perhaps the engineering conundrum of how to pack hundreds of 40-foot containers on a windjammer will provide a few practical types an outlet for Inventiveness. A foiling monohull, perchance?


Catch 22. A global society suffering that kind of energy-constraint, isn't trading as many 40foot containers....