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New Zealand Power Sapped by Drought

Hydroelectric cutbacks may hurt exporters

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1992



AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

NEW ZEALANDERS may have to get used to cold showers, shorter work weeks, and candle-lit dinners.

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These are the results of a nine-month drought that may force the shutdown of the south island's hydroelectric facilities, which normally provide 70 percent of the nation's power. No one is in danger of starvation, but the effect on New Zealand businesses and exporters may be severe.

The electricity corporation New Zealand Limited asked consumers June 10 to cut back electrical usage by 10 percent. Kiwis have responded by curtailing their electrical use by up to 16 percent in some areas.

Meteorologists here were unimpressed by a recent storm that interrupted New Zealand's dry winter season. And since more rain is unlikely to arrive soon, the country may have to cut back electrical usage by a further 10 percent. This prospect has prompted discussion of shifting to a four-day work week, banning street lighting, and cutting back electricity supplied to large industrial consumers. Citizens may be asked to shower on odd days.

"The worst-case scenario is that we could reach the 6th of July and have across-the-board cuts of 20 percent and have to operate at those levels until the spring [September] rain," says Wally Gardner, executive director of the National Manufacturers Federation in Wellington. "If that happens it will have an ... effect of reducing financial results, government tax flows, and the banks would have to show considerable understanding."

The electricity cutbacks have taken on political overtones since the government privatized New Zealand Limited, the nation's electric company in 1987. To keep up its profits the company encouraged regular electricity use until two weeks ago. It also used its cheaper hydroelectric resources rather than switching to more expensive oil generators. "There's a serious lack of planning in the current system," Mr. Gardner says.

Prime Minister Jim Bolger has called in business leaders to determine if more cutbacks are feasible. "We told the prime minister that the amount of power-saving that we can make is relatively minimal other than turning off the odd light bulb or not floodlighting buildings at night," Gardner says.

But the heaviest consumers of power are businesses. The top 10 consumers of electricity use 30 percent of the total power produced. These consumers include New Zealand Steel, Comalco, an aluminum producer that uses 15 percent of the country's electricity, and Fletcher Challenge, which produces building materials and wood products. Exports from these top companies also earn valuable exchange for the country. New Zealand will get a reputation as an unreliable supplier, company spokesmen say, if businesses here have to cut production.

New Zealand Steel, however, has saved energy without even trying. Its furnaces have remained idle because of a strike. The striking workers say their "patriotic efforts" should be appreciated by the rest of the country.

The country's best hope is a return of westerly winds and a normally moist climate. This is not likely to happen soon since the winter months are generally dry. But there are signs that the long range weather pattern affected by the El Nino weather phenomenon is showing signs of changing. The El Nino effect is a complex interaction of sea temperatures, currents, and winds. In the past year it has impacted the weather in Australia, North and South America, and the Pacific. El Nino has brought New Zealand more southerly winds, which carry less rainfall.

The power shortage has prompted some rugby clubs to cancel their night games and hold practice sessions with the lights dim. Television New Zealand has decided not to broadcast in the early hours. The country also is searching for ways to generate more power. Some oil-powered plants that had been moth-balled to cut costs are being fired up again.

The authorities are trying to find a way to harness the electric diesels on the Cook Strait ferry, which runs between the north and south islands. Once the ferry is hooked up to a transformer it could provide enough electricity for a town of 10,000.