A tale of two energy futures

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
3 July, 2024

As Peter Dutton promotes his vision of a nuclear-powered Australia, New Zealanders should also be thinking about their country’s energy future. Given the right energy policy choices, New Zealand would have a chance to redefine its economic future. While Australia debates splitting atoms, New Zealand sits atop a geothermal goldmine.

An underlying question that Australia, and New Zealand have in common, concerns how open both countries want to be when it comes to accepting technological change.

Dutton’s proposal to build seven nuclear power plants by the mid-2030s has reignited Australia’s long-simmering nuclear debate. It is a bold vision, promising reliable, zero-emissions baseload power to support the country’s growing energy needs and climate commitments.

However, Dutton’s plan faces formidable obstacles: costs in the billions, complex regulatory hurdles and optimistic timelines that have drawn scepticism from experts and criticism from political opponents.

While Dutton’s plan may be controversial in Australia, it would be unthinkable in New Zealand. New Zealand’s anti-nuclear sentiment runs so deep that the country willingly sacrificed its security pact with the United States to maintain it.

New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance is a point of national identity for many Kiwis. It also exemplifies a broader national scepticism towards technological progress. That scepticism may be hindering the country from reaching its economic potential.

The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that 52% of New Zealanders reject artificial intelligence (AI) as a significant innovation. That contrasts with just 35% globally.

These figures reflect a widespread tech-wariness that extends well beyond AI and nuclear power. It is also reflected in the country’s stringent anti-GMO policies and its paltry investment in research and development. At just about 1.4% of GDP, it is well below the OECD average and far behind tech innovation leaders like Finland (3%) and Israel (5.6%).

The roots of this reluctance are complex. It stems partly from New Zealand’s success in marketing itself as an unspoiled natural wonderland. The “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign has become deeply intertwined with the national identity.

When your brand is built on pristine landscapes and Hobbiton tourism, embracing AI and robotics might seem off-message. But has New Zealand inadvertently shackled its potential in clinging to its clean, green image?

This is not to say New Zealand is a complete technological laggard. The country has produced notable success stories like accounting software firm Xero, space innovator Rocket Lab and the real-time GDP forecasting tool GDPLive. These examples prove that New Zealand has the talent and creativity to compete on the global tech stage. However, these remain exceptions rather than the rule.

It is ironic that New Zealand could combine its clean-and-green image with new technology if it was willing to leverage artificial intelligence. That is because the country’s geothermal resources offer a perfect synthesis of environmental stewardship and technological progress.

With over 17% of its electricity already generated from geothermal sources and capacity for much more, New Zealand could position itself as a prime location for the burgeoning data centre industry. The country’s geothermal fields, particularly in the Taupo volcanic zone, represent one of the world’s most significant and accessible geothermal resources.

Meanwhile, the global artificial intelligence boom is driving an unprecedented surge in demand for these energy-hungry facilities. The International Energy Agency projects that global data centre electricity consumption could double by 2026, reaching levels equivalent to Japan’s current electricity usage.

New Zealand’s abundant geothermal energy and cool climate would make it an ideal host for such operations. Such a development could bring billions in investment and create thousands of high-paying tech jobs, significantly boosting New Zealand’s economy.

So, what is stopping a Kiwi geothermal boom from happening on a larger scale?

The challenge lies not just in the technical aspects of geothermal development but in convincing a sceptical public of its merits.

For many New Zealanders, the idea of expanding energy production primarily to power data centres for AI – a technology they neither fully understand nor trust – will be a hard sell. There is a disconnect between the country’s clean, green self-image and the perceived intrusiveness of large-scale tech infrastructure.

A general wariness of rapid technological change compounds this resistance. And may fear that embracing AI and big tech could fundamentally alter the character of their country, potentially eroding the qualities that make New Zealand unique.

Overcoming this cultural inertia requires not just policy changes, but a shift in the national narrative – one that reconciles technological progress with environmental stewardship.

The country runs a complex consenting process, governed by multiple statutes. Regional councils wield primary authority over geothermal resource allocation, leading to inconsistent policies across regions and uncertainty for developers. Environmental concerns, stemming from past geothermal developments that caused adverse impacts further complicate the picture.

Moreover, much of New Zealand’s geothermal potential lies under Māori-owned land. While consultation with indigenous landowners is crucial for equitable development, it can lead to lengthy negotiation processes.

Economic barriers further compound these challenges. There are substantial upfront costs associated with exploration and drilling. It is also difficult to secure long-term power purchase agreements in New Zealand’s electricity market.

The path forward requires a cultural shift towards embracing technological change. Policy reforms are also needed to streamline geothermal development while maintaining strong environmental protections and respect for Māori rights. Indeed, it would present a great opportunity for Māori to benefit from the resulting investment.

The stakes in this energy debate are high for both Australia and New Zealand. Australia’s nuclear ambitions, if realised, could reshape its energy landscape.

For its part, if New Zealand can overcome its cultural aversion to innovative technology, it has the potential to become a model for sustainable innovation in the AI age, powered by the heat beneath its feet.

To read the article in the Australian website, click here.

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