ENERGY HUNT; The drive to self-sufficiency: natural gas, geysers, hydro

In parliament, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon likes to tell opponents that at country." Although it may not be floating in oil, like Saudi Arabia, New Zealand has the potential to become totally self-sufficient in energy by the turn of the century.

Already, the country is a hydroelectric powershouse: Some 85 percent of its electricity comes from river dams. Ample rainfall keeps reservoirs full and turbines whining. Officials estimate there is enough water power to boost electrical supplies another threefold, although environmental opposition has halted construction of several dams.

The country is literally sitting on a nother important source of energy: boiling geysers on the North Island which generate 5 percent of the nation's electricity.The government wants to expand geothermal power greatly, particularly to serve the growing paper and pulp industry.

New Zealand's coal seams are not as awesome as Australia's, but Energy Minister William Birch says the government will decide by 1984 whether it should , or even can, convert some of its vast lignite deposits into synthetic fuel. The country has proven reserves of 3.4 billion tons of lignite and potential reserves of 10 billion tons.

Currently, only 2 million tons of coal are mined a year. Some of it is used to generate power, and a small amount is exported to Japan. Onshore oil deposits were recently discoverd in North Taranaki, on the North Island. The first discovery, called the McKee well, produced only 1,000 barrels a day. But later drilling, Mr. Birch says, has suggested that as much as 10,000 barrels a day could be drawn up -- or about 8 percent of the nation's total imports. More seismic tests and drilling will determine the field's exact size. Meanwhile, work is under way to find a way to refine the highly waxy oil.

In addition, 16 new licenses have been given to major oil companies to explore in the often stormy offshore areas. A consortium of oil companies plans to spend $100 million (NZ$122 million) a year for five years on exploration. The famous Texas-based Hunt brothers, in conjunction with Philips Petroleum, have agreed to drill in the South Basin, a patch of sea south of New Zealand known for its icebergs and gales.

The opposition Social Credit Political League is convinced that New Zealand also has a bright future in small-scale ethanol plants, which would convert either biomass or wood products to fuels.But most New Zealand energy experts are doubtful that this "small is beautiful" concept will work on the island. Solar energy likewise doesn't have a great future, since it is cloudy or rainy here much of the year.

One renewable source that does have great promise is wind. New Zealanders often refer to the capital city as "windy Wellington" because of the nearly gale-force gusts that almost always whip through Cook Strait, the narrow body of water separating the North and South Islands.

"There's lots of windmill potential," says Prof. Ray Meyer, dean of the engineering at the University of Auckland. But he quickly adds, "In terms of the national grid, it's still some considerable distance down the road."

The energy minister says the country is "watching and doing as much as if not more than anyone else" in windmill technology. But he thinks windmills will mainly be used in isolated areas, such as the Chatham Islands. Even so, hydroelectric power is still far more important to New Zealand than wind power. "We can count on it to rain," says Mr. Meyer

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