HANMER, N.Z. It was with great excitement that I located the last site for my field survey near a town famous for its hot springs. What better way to close out an intense round of sampling than lounging in a naturally toasty pool?
And yet, when all was said and done, and we’d enjoyed a warm day dodging wasp nests in the field, neither Kathrin (whose hands excavated most of the tree seedlings we collected) nor I felt much like getting heated up again. So I missed the famous Hanmer Hot Springs, but enjoyed fish-n-chips and a cold beer instead.
What I didn’t miss, though, was the springs’ sulfur aroma, familiar after visits to Yellowstone and Lassen Volcanic, which signifies the origins of the water kilometers below the Earth’s surface. The smell is a sign not just of a therapeutic bathing spot, but also of New Zealand’s incredibly active geology.
Perched at the intersection of the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates, New Zealand has a backbone of geothermal activity, huge craters from volcanoes past and a spiderweb of fault lines whose tremors even I can sometimes feel. (As I write this, we’re on palpable earthquake number 10,146. Since I arrived last month, most people have felt a few dozen; I’ve noticed only a handful of the strongest.)
Though there’s not much to be done about the quakes, at least sunken volcanoes make good harbors, and geothermal activity is an energy goldmine. Hanmer’s springs haven’t been tapped (for more than tourists’ gold, that is), but the North Island’s springs have. Generators on the Taupo Volcanic Field provide 13 percent of New Zealand’s electricity each year. Meanwhile, hydroelectric plants (especially on New Zealand’s South Island, with its dramatic landscapes and fast-flowing rivers) meet 56.4 percent of electricity demand. A further 3.7 percent of power is generated from wind.
New Zealand is rightly proud of its ability to generate nearly three quarters of its electricity from renewable sources, ensuring its energy security and protecting the global atmosphere. Still, Kiwis haven’t been immune to the allure of fast-flowing fossil fuels: Back in 1930, 90 percent of Kiwi electricity came from renewables, but as demand grew, so too did reliance on coal.
Meanwhile, back home in the States, a paltry 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources. (Two thirds of our total electricity generation comes from coal and natural gas; the remaining comes mostly from nuclear.)
Yet that 10 percent amounts to 434 terawatt hours each year, 10 times the total electricity generated in all of New Zealand. In fact, only China surpasses the United States in renewable electricity generation.
That doesn’t excuse the fact that, while the U.S. population is 70 times bigger than New Zealand’s, the United States consumes 100 times as much electricity. An average American uses roughly 40 percent more electricity than an average Kiwi, and, when it comes to total energy use, we outstrip New Zealanders by 78 percent.
So the story isn’t just about emitting less. It’s also about simply using less. Imagine cutting our personal electricity consumption down to New Zealanders’ levels and taking coal-fired power plants offline accordingly: We could trim 1.2 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
More will be cut as we build on an already-strong renewables foundation. Though the second-ever commercial geothermal electricity plant was built in New Zealand in 1958 (the first entered Italian service in 1904), today the world’s most productive region is in our own backyard. Seventy miles north of San Francisco in the Mayacamas Mountains, 22 geothermal plants serve five adjacent counties. Between these plants, hydroelectric power from dams across most major rivers and wind farms scattered across hillsides, Californians get 31 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.
Meanwhile, across the country attention is increasingly being paid to giant turbines, vats of algal biofuels and vast expanses of solar panels. A Stanford acquaintance works on photovoltaics; my first research lab at Rutgers University continues to stir soupy green diatom cultures; a cousin just started his first steady job in years as a wind farm repairman.
Depending on which literature you read, the future of renewables burns bright. Certainly it must be, since competing supplies of fossil fuels are dwindling, driving prices up. And though the United States can strip mine its way through at least another few decades of coal, those of us concerned with picturesque mountaintops and climate change believe that there must be a better path.
After watching the sun set over New Zealand’s own picturesque mountains, the Southern Alps, I switch on a light for the first time today. I think I could get used to this low-electricity lifestyle.
Did something in this column light you up? Send comments, criticism and please-stop-gloating-about-being-in-Aotearoa requests to hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.