New Zealand’s renewable energy is at a tipping point and solar power is becoming more accessible and affordable.

In an effort to reduce their monthly power bill, a Nelson contracting company recently had 140 solar panels installed on the roofs of their workshops through Nelson-based company Current Generation.

Taylors Contracting Company CEO Charlie Taylor said they made the decision to move to renewable energy after they deemed it a “financially viable” way for the business to conserve energy and reduce their bill.

“Most of our usage is day time usage, so we’re getting a good return from the what the solar panels generate.”

He said the environmental advantage of having solar panels installed hadn’t been the main reason for the change, but had added to the decision making process.

Taylor said for now any excess energy they generated would be sold back to the grid, but giving it away to nearby community groups was an idea that could be looked at in the future.

Small community solar schemes are on the rise, industry experts say.

Green Party MP and spokesperson for energy and resources Gareth Hughes said New Zealand had “a massive solar opportunity”.

He said New Zealand found itself currently at a tipping point within a global energy landscape.

“When you look around the world we’re seeing a huge drive in solar generation which couldn’t have been predicted even only five years ago and it’s going to continue on these trends.

“So the future is bright for solar.”

However he said it was unlikely the country would move to solely using solar power as it had “such excellent and cheap renewable sources” such as hydro, wind and geothermal sources.

A “key barrier” to making renewable energy sources more accessible to the public was the role of lines companies around the country, he said.

“We already see these new solar charges emerging for examples in Hawkes Bay from Unison, and I think that shows that they’re threatened and looking to block the technology rather than work with it.

“I’m urging line companies to work with solar companies and entities looking at micro grids because ultimately if they don’t, with the rapidly falling cost of batteries, they’re simply going to see people drop off the grid.”

This could lead to the “death cycle”, where customers leave the networks, driving the price up, leading to more customers leaving.
New Zealand had been “a lot slower” than other countries in adopting solar because the Government hadn’t gone down the road of offering subsidies and the energy industry’s push-back on renewables.

“The industry has been very cold in terms of its messages and publishing anti-solar reports, and these new solar taxes that have emerged in some regions.

Existing fossil fuel powered stations, such as the Huntly Power Station, were reaching the end of their lives at “approximately” 2035, which is part of the reason the Government chose that date for the 100 per cent renewables goal.

“It could possibly be done sooner, we’re seeing the economics of renewables drastically change with the rapidly falling prices of solar.”

Nelson’s Solar City CEO Andrew Booth said the most economic way of using solar power was to install panels on roofs in New Zealand communities creating “micro grids”, and then distribute the generated power back for local use.

Creating a large solar farm was expensive and inefficient as every time energy was moved around energy was lost.

“We know that the [solar] technology has the ability to get the nation to become 100 per cent renewable a lot faster than the current Government is attempting to get us there.

Solar City supplies, installs and maintains free solar systems to properties around the country, together with batteries to store generated power in, selling it back to the home owner at a discounted rate.

Booth said he thought more solar micro grids would pop up around the country.

“What I think will happen is that businesses in your community will fit solar panels on their roofs and sell that power to others nearby that are not in the best position to generate power from solar panels.

Solar micro grids in communities could move the country’s energy usage to 100 per cent before the Government’s 2035 goal.

“You’ll see local lines companies like Network Tasman look at how they can make community solar power available.

“You might find for example that some of those larger organisations like Air New Zealand start to make power available from their own roofs to social housing projects around New Zealand for no margin, they simply give it away.”

Booth said because New Zealand’s residential power was one of the most expensive in the world according to the International Energy Agency. Because of this the country had an unique opportunity to become the first nation worldwide to be 100 per cent renewable.

“Because it’s so expensive, solar power works naturally from an economic perspective without subsidy, you don’t need the Government to get involved.

“You can generate power locally from your roof and store it in a battery, for a price which is cheaper than buying it from the grid.”

Its biggest challenge was “a massive lack of awareness” about the fact solar was more economic than buying energy off the grid.

“That’s driven largely … by the fact that the Government for many years until the current government wasn’t interested changing the status quo.

“The current Government has now said we need to solve climate change [and] one of the key technologies to help solve it is solar power.”

Solar City CEO Andrew Booth said the most economic way of using solar power was to install panels on roofs in communities around New Zealand, and distribute the generated power back for local use.

Ecotricity managing director Al Yates said a combination of solar, wind and hydro was needed to shift the country towards meeting the target of being 100 per cent renewable energy.

Ecotricity is New Zealand’s only provider of 100 per cent  certified renewable electricity, sourcing it from hydro and wind.

It also buys surplus energy generated from those with solar systems installed and on sells it.

Yates said none of the renewable energy sources could “save the day” on its own, but together they could manage seasonal fluctuations in generated power.

He said hydro and wind were currently cheaper options of renewable energy than solar, but with the rapidly dropping price of solar that could change in the future.

Yates foresaw solar playing a “big part” in the energy sector, possibly providing 30 to 50 per cent of New Zealand’s energy needs.

Green Party MP and spokesperson for energy and resources Gareth Hughes said New Zealand had “a massive solar opportunity”.