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Solar power a 'step in the right direction'

HOLY Trinity Parish Hall was buzzing last night as more than 70 residents packed in to discuss the region’s solar power potential.

The Gisborne arm of the Green Party hosted the meeting, with the party’s energy spokesperson Gareth Hughes in town to discuss why the region should embrace solar power. The simple reason for Mr Hughes is sunshine.

“It's not called ‘sunny Gizzy’ for no reason," he said.

“Gisborne receives an average of 2200 sunshine hours a year, more than the average German city, which receives around 1500.”

Germany has heavily invested in solar power and on many days in the year produces 50 percent of its electricity from solar.

Mr Hughes, who grew up in Gisborne, also sees the region’s distance from electricity generation as an incentive to increase energy resilience and community ownership of energy production.

Some of Gisborne’s more remote locations are very expensive to connect to the grid and it makes more sense for them to turn to solar, he said.

Solar power technology has been dramatically reducing in cost, and record numbers of New Zealanders are embracing solar. The electricity industry has subsequently been losing revenue from those on solar power, and has responded by cutting the “buy-back” on electricity sold back to the grid from individual solar PV (photovoltaic) users.

There has also been criticism about how a widespread uptake of individual solar PV units would affect New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. A report released in March, funded by government agencies and the electricity industry, argued in the long-term it would increase emissions as solar users would still need to use grid electricity in peak hours, mainly from coal and gas-fired power plants.

The findings were backed up by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, who said even with the growth in battery technology they will only be good at storing energy from day to night, not summer to winter.

Mr Hughes said that finding is misleading, as the report itself says an increase in solar PV would decrease emissions in the short to mid-term, and a more “integrated approach” to energy production would solve the “peak” power issues.

One example would be to use hydro dams as big batteries - power homes with solar during summer and daylight hours through winter, then use hydro, with additional wind and geothermal sources, at peak times during winter.

Mr Hughes said Eastland Network, responsible for distribution and lines charges in Gisborne and Wairoa, should be getting behind solar installations.

Gisborne District Council could also support solar, by offering small rates-based loans, such as Nelson City Council had previously done.

Mayoral candidate Tony Robinson was also in attendance, and backed Mr Hughes’ comments.

“It is a no-brainer. Gisborne has enormous solar potential,” he said.

He said the council should be investing more money and sees a great role for Eastland Network. Some in the audience had questions about the power industry’s ability to cut buy-back rates and to introduce tariffs on solar users, such as Unison has done in Hawke’s Bay, effectively cutting much of the power savings to solar users.

Gisborne resident Stuart Armstrong experienced exactly this, with the buy-back rate more than halving six months after he installed solar PV in his family home.

With a family of four, Mr Armstrong said they pay on average $100 a month for electricity, compared with up to $400 before they installed solar.

He said his reasons for going solar were the falling costs of solar technology, rising cost of electricity and to encourage the clean energy industry to continually improve.

“While the technology might not be perfect, it is a step in the right direction.”

Cloudy Germany has heavily invested in solar power and on many days in the year can produce up to 50 percent of its electricity from solar. File picture
Gareth Hughes.