This article was originally published in the Energy & Natural Resources Newsletter of the International Law Office - www.lexology.com/commentary - see article here.
New Zealand has seen an eventful 2023, with the previous Labour Party-led government sinking its teeth into much of its covid-19 delayed energy sector development, then changing tack with Jacinda Ardern's resignation as prime minister. Now, the newly formed National Party-led government is releasing and already beginning to implement its equivalent policies.
Central to the sector's development has been the previous government progressing its energy strategy with wide-ranging public consultation, including on enabling offshore renewable energy, measures to ensure electricity is affordable, reliable and resilient, and the gas industry transition. The Energy Strategy, to be finalised in 2024, will provide how the government will meet its 2050 target of a net zero emissions economy – the energy strategy should provide much needed industry guidance on priorities and pathways.
The new government has signalled it will not be complying with the targets set by the previous government, highlighted by abandoning the target of 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and instead will be taking a more measured approach to the sector. However, despite New Zealand being awarded the first "Fossil of the Day" award at COP28 for its decision to repeal the ban on oil and gas exploration in early December 2023, before his departure to COP28, climate change minister Simon Watts assured the country that the new government is "absolutely" committed to its renewable energy targets, following its signing of the COP28 pledge to triple renewable energy.
Please note: Many of our expectations for 2024 provided in this article are based on the best information at the time of writing in December 2023, and are, of course, subject to any future decisions by the new coalition government.
A cornerstone to the National Party-led coalition government's campaign and early days in office is its 49 point "100-day plan", where it has promised to, within its first 100 days in government:1
- stop work on the Lake Onslow pumped hydro scheme, which is a NZ$16 billion hydroelectric battery pitched as a solution to New Zealand's dry year problem;
- repeal the Spatial Planning Act 2023 and the Natural and Built Environment Act 2023 (and reinstate the Resource Management Act 1991) and introduce a fast-track consenting regime instead; and
- begin efforts to double New Zealand's renewable energy production, including to issue a national policy statement on renewable energy generation.
Notably, and while not provided for in the 100-day plan, the National Party and Act Party agreed in their coalition arrangements to repeal the ban on new oil and gas offshore mining and exploration permits. Similarly, the coalition agreement between the National Party and the New Zealand First Party committed to future-proofing the natural gas industry by restarting offshore exploration and supporting development of hydrogen technology to produce hydrogen from natural gas without the co-production of carbon dioxide.
Policy direction for renewable energy
The policy developments taking place under the newly formed government signal a change in direction for the sector in 2024, although it seems to be more of a change in approach, than a change in focus and fundamental drive towards the transition to renewable energy sources. Specifically, the change signals a focus on the market to develop the renewable sector with the government's facilitation, rather than the market depending on government funding, direction and regulation.
There is a high level of interest in the potential for offshore wind, with the development of the regulatory regime advancing through two public consultation stages in 2023 on the design of the permitting regime. The government seems to be favouring a regulatory regime that draws on relevant overseas regimes, which would encourage overseas investors to have greater confidence in investing in New Zealand offshore renewables. Developers are ready and eager, so it would be good to see whether the new government can further accelerate the previous government's announced intention of having the regulatory regime in place by the end of 2024.2
New Zealand is in the initial stages of developing a hydrogen sector, with significant opportunities to invest in green hydrogen to reduce emissions. Over the past year, there has been significant investment in hydrogen-related research, science and innovation.3An Interim Hydrogen Roadmap was released by the government in August 2023, which sets out the proposed strategic approach for including hydrogen as part of New Zealand's broader energy transition. In parallel, the government has been working on the Regional Hydrogen Transition programme, which includes a NZ$100 million green hydrogen consumption rebate from the budget 2023.
Looking ahead, the investment into hydrogen is set to continue into 2024. In early 2024, a competitive process will be run to select participants for the Regional Hydrogen Transition programme. The new government is also looking to make it easier to consent infrastructure, which may include hydrogen projects. This may also include the introduction of a National Policy Statement for hydrogen to provide certainty for investment in hydrogen production and distribution, as has been seen globally.4 It is anticipated that the development of hydrogen will reflect the government's hands-off market approach. This would differ from the United Kingdom's approach, where the UK government has set a target of 5 gigawatts of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, supported by a Net Zero Hydrogen Fund and a suite of regulations.5
Geothermal-focussed policies are currently sparse, but the government's plans to "turbo-charge" new renewable energy projects will extend to the geothermal sector.
Resource Management Act reform
The energy regulatory environment in 2023 was to be significantly altered by the enactment of the Natural and Built Environment Act 2023 in August 2023. However, the new government has confirmed that it will repeal this Act before the end of 2023, and the Resource Management Act 1991 will continue to be used to consent projects alongside a new fast-track regime. Details of the new government's fast-track consenting regime are anticipated to be available in early 2024.6
It is expected that the new fast-track consenting regime to be similar to the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-track Consenting) Act 2020, which was repealed in July 2023. A fast-track regime would allow certain activities to apply to "fast-track" a project and speed up consenting processes. It is envisioned that a consenting regime may take some time to implement, given the government's short-term focus is consumed by its 100-day plan, but following this, it is expected that the pace of project development to improve. The fast tracking of projects in 2023 under the covid-19 regime has shaved an average of 18 months off the consenting process, but the question remains as to whether new projects are sufficiently progressed to benefit from fast-tracking in 2024.
As noted above, the new government's 100-day plan states that efforts to double renewable energy production will begin, including with the development of a new National Policy Statement for Renewable Energy Generation. The current National Policy Statement for Renewable Electricity Generation 2011 (NPS-REG) came into effect in May 2011 and, since then, there has been significant development in New Zealand's climate change response and a different approach to consenting renewable energy projects, making the NPS-REG overdue for a refresh. A new NPS-REG is expected to be released for consultation in 2024.
Transmission and companies lines
Cyclone Gabrielle, the severe tropical cyclone that impacted parts of the North Island of New Zealand in February 2023, illustrated the need to strengthen our essential infrastructure. The Commerce Commission has advised that going forward all electricity lines companies will need to bolster their networks to make them more resilient as severe weather events become increasingly common.
While there is a long road ahead, it is expected that 2024 will see increased investment by lines companies to ensure more resilient electricity networks. 2023 highlighted the need to maintain the supply of electricity to cope with the increasing occurrence of severe weather events and natural disasters. This investment will have the added benefit of supporting the development of new renewable energy generation projects across the country through connection of new generation assets into the grid.
Transpower, the New Zealand state-owned enterprise that operates the country's grid and power system, has continued to respond to increased demand for electricity and the need for sufficient generation capacity. Transpower notes that there has been increasing tightness to meet peak demand since 2021 and there will need to be continued work to meet this growing demand.7
Transpower has proposed to invest NZ$393 million into three major projects, including one to upgrade the high voltage link between the North and South Islands. The device to be installed on the High Voltage Direct Current link would increase the maximum electricity flow between the islands. In its draft decision, the Commerce Commission has questioned the timing of the high voltage link investment in response to need and the lack of immediate benefit to the consumer, but approved the investment on the basis that Transpower must demonstrate a net market benefit before installing the device. It is expected that a final decision from the Commerce Commission will be released in February 2024.
Review of markets and developments
Increased foreign investment interest has been seen in New Zealand's renewable energy sectors, including, as an example, the previous government's announcement in partnership with BlackRock of the NZ$2 billion Clean Energy Fund. New Zealand Green Investment Finance, the government's own green fund, remains a key investment partner for renewable energy ventures and has grown its portfolio to invest in progressing different green energy sources. The following sections delve into the market movements for 2023 and into what 2024 (and beyond) may hold for each sector.
Traditionally, solar energy has accounted for very little of New Zealand's energy production and consumption, but this is set to change.8 In the resource consenting space, New Zealand has had a bumper year for solar energy with plenty of consenting decisions to guide considerations for establishing these farms. For example, a solar farm was approved in the Tararua District on highly productive Class 2 soil,9 while a solar farm in the Mackenzie Basin was declined (primarily because of ecological concerns).
Decision makers have been tasked with carefully balancing the need for investment in solar energy – in order to decarbonise New Zealand's economy – against environmental effects such as ecological effects, highly productive land capacity (noting that co-use of the land is possible with some projects including sheep grazing under solar panels), and visual amenity effects.
Looking ahead to 2024, another industrious year for the consenting and development of solar farms is expected. Various developers are pursuing opportunities across the country and by way of example, recent media noted that Genesis has confirmed three new North Island sites that will provide a total of 400 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, and Lodestone is expecting to begin generating power at two sites in 2024.10 Contact Energy has also announced that it will be partnering with international renewable specialist Lightsource bp to deliver phase one of Christchurch Airport's renewable energy precinct, Kōwhai Park (this is anticipated to be the first of many partnerships between the energy and solar brands).
There have been numerous solar farms that have lodged consent applications under the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-track Consenting) Act 2020 this year, including:
- Energy Farms Limited; Rangiriri Solar Farm Limited;
- Waerenga Solar Farm Limited; and
- Transpower New Zealand Limited.
Applicants for new solar projects will need to put forward detailed information, including potentially more peer reviews of discrete environmental effects (eg, ecology or landscape and visual), to ensure that decision makers have the necessary information to make informed decisions on projects.
The wind energy sector continued its fast-moving development in 2023. There will be 25 onshore wind farms operating in New Zealand by the end of 2023, generating approximately 10% of the country's installed generation capacity (up from 6% in 2019). Two wind farms were commissioned in 2023,11 among other notable wind infrastructure projects, for example:
- Mercury Energy's Turitea wind farm in the Manawatū became fully operational in June, and is expected to have the capacity to produce 840 gigawatt hours per year;
- Meridian Energy's Harapaki wind farm in the Hawke's Bay began generation in November; and
- Mercury Energy's Kaiwera Downs stage one wind farm in Southland was officially opened in November.
2024 should be a promising year for onshore wind projects, with the following notable projects in the pipeline:
- Manawa Energy recently announced plans to build Kaihiku Wind Farm in Otago, which will be one of New Zealand's largest wind farms, generating 300 megwatts and with a project value of up to NZ$900 million;12
- Meridian Energy and NZ Windfarms announced its joint venture in October to repower and extend the Te Rere Hau Wind Farm near Palmerston North; and
- Manawa Energy is also investigating a 150 megawatts wind project at Ototoka and has land options for a 230 megawatt wind farm in Waikato.
Investors and developers have expressed interest in New Zealand's offshore wind sector, with a particular focus in the Taranaki, South Auckland and Waikato regions. Some announced partnering arrangements include:
- BlueFloat Energy and Elemental Group announced plans for a multibillion-dollar investment in offshore wind projects in South Auckland and West Waikato, as part of a nation-wide programme to develop up to 5 gigawatts of offshore wind.
- Meridian Energy signing a memorandum of understanding with Parkwind (a European company) to explore the offshore wind potential, with a focus on the Taranaki region. Parkwind stated its intention of looking for a local partner and aim to build up to 1 gigawatt of bottom fixed offshore wind by 2032.
- The New Zealand Super Fund and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners announced a joint venture, Taranaki Offshore Partnership, looking into an offshore wind farm in the South Taranaki Bight producing up to 1 gigawatt of electricity. The joint venture recently deployed the first piece of physical offshore wind technology in New Zealand, a Floating Light Detecting and Ranging device.
- Taranaki Offshore Partnership and BlueFloat Energy reached an agreement with Port Taranaki to work together to assess how the port can serve as a hub for offshore wind development in New Zealand, including offshore Taranaki.
In combination, the progress for the wind sector seen in 2023 and the forecasted investment in 2024 have been and will be substantial. However, the pace and scale of future development will, as with most sectors, depend on the policy direction taken by the government.
Research and development of hydrogen technology continues around New Zealand. The New Zealand Hydrogen Council's chief executive Linda Wright has said that the government's ongoing policy development in this area is providing confidence for the sector and investors.
Notably, Meridian Energy has stated that it is close to formalising partnership agreements with Woodside Energy and Mitsui & Co for the Southern Green Hydrogen project, and Hiringa Energy has received its first equipment for New Zealand's first nationwide hydrogen refuelling station network. Additionally, the government has partnered with various groups to support many of the early-stage projects. Further certainty is expected in investment in hydrogen projects as the roadmap and programme are finalised.
2023 was a promising growth year for geothermal energy, with increased capital investment in geothermal assets and geothermal energy now providing approximately 18% of New Zealand's energy. GNS Science researchers reported there is the opportunity to build capacity and efficiency to generate about 30% of New Zealand's electricity requirements from geothermal.13
Eastland Generation, who owns and operates three geothermal powerplants, undertook a successful capital raise with international company Obayashi Corporation in order to fund its pipeline of renewable generation projects (subject to Overseas Investment Office consent). Eastland Generation's pipeline includes the construction of the 49 megawatts TOPP2 Kawerau geothermal plant.14 Eastland Generation's Taheke geothermal project was approved for fast-track consenting in June 2023 under the previous Environment Minister David Parker, and construction is due to commence in 2024, which will further increase the geothermal presence in the area.15
Contact Energy's 174 megwatts Tauhara geothermal plant north of Taupō was expected to be operational by the third quarter of 2024, however, the project has suffered multiple delays due to design and modification issues. New Zealand struggled in 2023 with electricity blackouts over the winter period and Transpower (the owner and operator of the national grid) noted that the risk of blackouts in the 2024 winter will be higher because of the delays experienced in commissioning the Tauhara B geothermal plant.
Beyond the Taupō Volcanic Zone, Top Energy Limited and Ngāwhā Generation Limited own and operate the Northland Ngāwhā Springs geothermal generation station and have applied for an exemption to expand capacity to 42 megawatts. Pending regulatory approval by the Electricity Authority,16 the increased production would assist with Northland becoming less reliant on South Island generation, and the associated transmission through Auckland.17
Oil and Gas
Oil and gas continue to have a role in facilitating New Zealand's transition to renewable energy, but the future of exploration and mining in New Zealand remains uncertain. The National Party campaigned to revoke the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration, which received global attention at COP28. However, the policy has not featured in the coalition government's 100-day plan, although is included in the National-Act coalition agreement.18 Overseas investors will be hesitant to invest if there is a risk the policy could again be reversed at any future government's whim.
The tender for Block Offer 2020 closed on 26 July 2023 and is the third and final block offer for petroleum exploration permits committed to by the previous Labour-led government in 2018. It is expected that this process could lead to new petroleum mining permits being granted, but all eyes will be on what the new government does next in terms of new Block Offers.
In May, Matahio Energy acquired a portfolio of six onshore oil and gas licences in Taranaki. Interestingly, to align with New Zealand's climate goals, Matahio Energy (a Singapore and Malaysia based company, with offices in Taranaki) has a greenhouse gas reduction plan that will allow the project to be carbon "net-zero" by 2030.
Phasing out gas will be a big topic for 2024. In 2021, the Climate Change Commission suggested that a response to the phasing-out difficulties could be to restrict any new gas connections to residential properties after 2025 – noting that New Zealand's climate change goals are not possible without this step. This is one of the focus areas for the previous government's Energy Strategy, in particular, to develop a plan by the end of 2024. As recognised in the consultation paper for this topic, a key issue will be how to phase out the use of fossil gas while it is still needed to generate electricity. In the consultation paper, Megan Woods, the then-Minister for Energy and Resources, suggested renewable gases such as biomethane and hydrogen could fill the gap.
It is notable that the new Energy Minister, Simeon Brown, reported that existing permit holder and key industry player Todd Energy's application for a permit to produce gas from the Karewa block offshore field could be approved. This follows an unused exploration permit granted in 1993 and acquired by Todd Energy in 2003. Todd Energy has stated that this is to "keep Karewa open as a natural gas development option to meet future gas demand", despite its own and the government's 2050 net-zero target. This permit being considered now highlights that the industry could continue and the new government may support the role for ongoing gas supply as part of the transition to renewables – even with the current ban in place, this permit can be granted within the bounds of the existing legislation.
Despite the potential for oil and gas exploration to continue, divestment has been seen in the industry in 2023. OMV, the last major multinational oil company with significant oil production in New Zealand, is in the process of selling its New Zealand assets in a bid to exit the New Zealand market. Interestingly, OMV has indicated that it has "limited" interest by purchasers in its assets.
Oil and gas industry players are increasingly diverting their efforts into the renewable energy space. For example, Genesis Energy has said that it will use the profits from the Kupe gas field to fund its renewable energy programme, worth NZ$1.1 billion, for the construction of new renewable generation and a grid scale battery storage system.19
∧ The 100 day plan deadline is 8 March 2024, see Policy Document "Coalition government 100-day plan" (November 2023).
∧ Electrify NZ – Offshore Wind (National Party, Policy, March 2023).
∧ "Hydrogen in New Zealand" (9 August 2023) MBIE..
∧ Electrify NZ – Offshore Wind (National Party, Policy, March 2023).
∧ "UK hydrogen strategy" (2 August 2023).
∧ Policy Document "Coalition government 100-day plan" (November 2023).
∧ Winter 2023 Review (Transpower, Report, October 2023).
∧ "Solar energy in New Zealand" EECA.
∧ R van Voorthuysen "Decision Report Energy Bay Limited" (7 September 2023) Tararua District Council.
"Genesis secures a further 400MW of solar across three sites" (20 November 2023);
"Helios confirms plans for solar farm between Naseby and Ranfurly" (21 September 2023); and
"Lodestone Energy starts generating power at New Zealand's first utility-scale solar farm" (23 November 2023).
∧ "Wind Farms Operating and Under Construction" (2023) New Zealand Wind Energy Association
∧ Coalition Agreement "New Zealand National Party & New Zealand First" 24 November 2023.
∧ For further information, see "Knowledge Hub" Geothermal The Next Generation.
∧ "Geothermal" Eastland Generation.
∧ "Taheke geothermal project referred for fast tracking" (25 July 2023) Eastland Group.
∧ "Top Energy and Ngāwhā Generation exemption" (24 November 2023) Electricity Authority Te Mana Hiko.
∧ "Who we are" Ngāwhā Generation.
∧ The National-Act coalition agreement provides the parties have agreed to "repeal the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration", while under the National-NZ First coalition agreement, the parties agreed to "future-proof the natural gas industry by restarting offshore exploration". See Coalition Agreement "New Zealand National Party & Act" 24 November 2023. In National's "Rebuilding the Economy" policy, which the National Party coalition agreements with NZ First and Act state will prevail over the agreements themselves.
∧ "Genesis to use Kupe profits to deliver 95% renewable generation" (30 November 2023) Genesis Energy.
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