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The solution to the problem is…

Last week New Zealand’s electricity system came close to its limits on a cold day with several power stations out of service for maintenance and hardly any wind to drive turbines. Both private and commercial electricity users helped by saving power. Alongside efforts to conserve electricity there were also efforts to state the problem clearly and to find solutions. What I noticed was that most of these problem and solution statements were significantly influenced by preconceptions and quite varied.

The most common comment was that the former government was at fault, because it introduced an oil and gas exploration ban. That argument was however mainly driven by an antipathy towards the previous government. No doubt, it may have contributed to the problem, but it is always suspicious to join the loudest voices without looking a bit further.

Others argued that the increased electrification of home heating and other applicances, such as electric cars, was at the root of the problem. No doubt there is a greater reliance on electricity. However, the alternatives of old wood fires and lots of petrol vehicles on a Canterbury winter day are not appealing at all—enough people suffered from the air pollution in the past.

Advocates argued for several solutions (apart from saying that electric heating, electric industrial machinery, and electric cars are bad): more control of discretionary electricity use, so that things like hot water heating, electric cars and other uses that are not time sensitive can be better controlled; more use of renewable fuel (such as wood) for both industrial processes and home heating—with improvements in combustion technology this can supply energy needs without the severe air pollution formerly experienced.

Others argued that the real problem was the poorly insulated housing stock in New Zealand. Considerably less energy would be needed if our houses were better insulated.

Others urged that we need to invest more in peak power generation, whether through the abandoned Lake Onslow scheme or other options. However, currently the New Zealand electricity market does not give incentives to build such generation capacity. Some also argued for more batteries in private homes together with solar electricity generation.

All these arguments came from particular interest groups—some were louder than others. They all emphasised part of the complex system. No one solution is the only one. I wonder whether something similar happens in other areas of life as well, when people push a particular definition of problem and their favoured solution, even though the situation is often a lot more complex and multiple factors and part-solutions may need to be taken into account.