Invercargill MP Eric Roy wants funding to assess the viability of harnessing the power of strong tidal currents to meet the energy needs of Stewart Island and the Tiwai aluminium smelter.
Mr Roy wants to secure a slice of an $8 million Marine Energy Deployment Fund, announced at the end of last year, to commission studies into wave and tidal energy off Southland's coastline.
Mr Roy is looking at a number of options including tidal turbines, tidal barrages and turbines which sit on the seabed. Southland had some of the most consistent tidal currents in New Zealand, he said.
"The great news for Southland, particularly Stewart Island, is that Niwa (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) has already done a study which shows that waves in Foveaux Strait meet the three criteria needed to generate electricity from wave energy – consistency, high energy, and a high wave period.
"Those strong tidal currents could also power tidal turbines which work on the same idea as a wind turbine and produce more electricity." Stewart Island Community Board member Bruce Ford raised the idea of using tidal energy to supply power to the island in July last year after the price of diesel-generated electricity on the island rose to more than 40 cents a unit – average retail electricity prices in New Zealand range up to about 17c a unit.
Yesterday he supported Mr Roy's plan and said Stewart Island was ideally placed to experiment with the technology because of the strong tidal currents running along the east coast of the island and their close proximity to the island's grid.
"Unless we sow these seeds these people might overlook us," he said.
Comalco managing director Tom Campbell said the company had looked at harnessing tidal currents passing under the Tiwai Bridge but could not progress the idea because it would raise beach levels.
The company was now looking at the possibility of harnessing wave power and supported Mr Roy's efforts, Mr Campbell said.
Mr Roy said electricity from wave energy was powering homes in Europe, with one tidal barrage in St Malo, France, providing enough electricity for 300,000 homes.
The 2004 Southland Energy Strategy identified the potential for local manufacturers and engineers to take advantage of the potential in building the equipment needed to harness wave energy, he said.
"This has the potential to be a real boon to Southland. As well as being sustainable through our great offshore tidal resources, it will give Stewart Island supply security, could reduce the national grid needs of Tiwai, and give extra work to Southland manufacturing and engineering firms."