The concept of sustainability is a broad one and is open to wide interpretation. It is often the case that one can get locked into a particular area of endeavour and miss the bigger picture. It is for this reason that a year ago I wrote a blog about a trip I made to the Galapagos islands. It was there that I was able to witness some very real efforts to not only conserve natural resources but also protect the diversity of both animal and plant populations. My visit raised issues that were a long way from the consideration of carbon footprints but just as important from a sustainability perspective. Twelve months later, I have just returned from a trip to New Zealand, which has again impressed me with not only talk but also delivery of sustainable development programmes.

From the very moment you enter the country and are taken aside to have your shoes and boots sprayed to prevent transfer of diseases, you realise that this country relies for its prosperity on its people, agriculture and tourism, and protects all three assiduously. New Zealanders are very disciplined about their management of waste. Recycling bins are everywhere, and one very rarely sees litter on the ground.

New Zealand is a very isolated country and, like the Galapagos Islands, has a range of animals and plants that are only found in that country. Against the yardsticks of the Galapagos, which has retained 90% of its original animal diversity before man arrived, and Hawaii, which has retained only 10%, New Zealand is striving to retain the 70% that are still present after waves of migrants have introduced animal predators, destroyed forests and polluted rivers in the development of farmland, mines and quarries.

The country is proud of the fact that 80% of its power/electricity is drawn from renewable sources. This may not be surprising, given that it rains on average over 200 days per year in New Zealand and has snow-capped mountains over 10,000 feet in height, making the country ideal for hydroelectric projects. I was therefore very interested to visit a lake in the South Island that became the centre of controversy between those that strive for financial prosperity and those who seek to protect the environment.

Lake Manapouri, with a surface area of 55 square miles, 33 islands and a maximum depth of 1500 feet, is the fifth largest lake in the country. Over a 7-year period starting in 1964, the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand was constructed. A tunnel was cut through a granite mountain to funnel water from the lake, past turbines, down to near sea level to generate a designed output of 300,000 horsepower (220,000 kW) of electricity. It was realised at the time that this was a major undertaking that would consume considerable capital, manpower and time, and therefore needed very clear financial deliverables.

When the project was completed, it was concluded that, to get the desired output of electricity, the level of the lake would have to be raised over 90 feet, submerging many islands and killing off local flora and fauna as well as depriving endemic animals of their habitat, potentially leading to their extinction. Just as the Keystone Pipeline controversy developed in the United States, the plan catalysed the development of a powerful environmental lobby that soon touched the whole country. Demonstrations were organised and almost 10% of the population signed the ‘Save Manapouri’ petition. The Lake became a major issue at a general election, and the incoming national government blocked the proposed raising of the water level.

However, the story does not end there. An accommodation had to be found between those supporting the economic and environmental pillars of sustainability. Engineers were brought in to reappraise the project and concluded that the electrical power delivery was limited by frictional forces down the tunnel and outdated turbine design. By cutting a second tunnel to enhance the flow and replacing the turbines with more modern designs, the power station not only met the targeted output but exceeded it by nearly three times the original target, without increasing the level of the lake.

The moral of this story is that, while environmental concerns can frustrate those interested in meeting customer requirements in a profitable and timely manner, it is often possible to find solutions that meet both economic and environmental objectives by taking a step back, reappraising the situation and bringing alternative ideas and technologies to bear.

In coatings industry terms, it is the environmental lobby that demands the switch from solvent-based to waterborne paints (both architectural and industrial), the removal of lead compounds from all formulations worldwide and strontium compounds from aircraft coatings. Many alternative solutions have already been found, but many more are needed to fully meet both environmental and economic pillars. The Lake Manapouri story tells us that solutions can be found, and that the application of new technology can often deliver ways forward that are significant improvements on what was originally targeted.

 As they say, “where there is a will, there is a way!”