Solar power to the people

June 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

INCREASING NUMBERS of households are setting themselves up as power generators with the ability to sell unwanted power back to power companies.

The prices of small-scale solar power generation systems have dropped, installers say, by as much as 60 per cent in the past two years, and with power prices on a seemingly endless rise, more households are investing in rooftop solar technology.

Brendan Winitana, the chairman of Sustainable Electricity Association New Zealand, said members had reported around 200 “grid- connected” installations last year, a big rise on the year before.

Winitana said most of those having the systems installed at a cost of around $8500 were households not planning to sell power back into the grid, rather just looking for a way to reduce their power bills.

He said as well as the falling cost of installation and rising power prices, the technology had become more efficient and more reliable, making the pay-back time shorter, though that varies around the country with retail power prices and hours of sunshine.

Solar power has been adopted in far smaller numbers here than in many other countries. In some countries demand has been driven by erratic electricity supply, while in others, such as Germany, power companies have to buy electricity at a minimum price known as “feed in tariffs”, something the Government has ruled out here.

There is every reason to believe that the number of New Zealanders connecting solar arrays to the grid will only continue to rise, and the South Island will lead the charge.

The Christchurch rebuild will play a big part with 2200 homes in Christchurch’s proposed Highfield subdivision to be fitted with solar- energy systems linked in to the grid. Power companies, however, are often less than enthusiastic about people feeding the grid as they’d rather be selling power than encouraging households to become more energy self- sufficient.

The exception is Meridian, which Winitana praised for its policy of buying back from retail customers at the same price it sells to them. All the others pay a lower rate.

Meridian’s general manager for retail, Bill Highet, says the company is likely to change that once winter is past, but it still aims to offer the highest rates because it is good for people to be able to generate their own power at peak times. It’s a position Highet said also meshed nicely with Meridian’s market positioning as a green energy generator.

While such rates might be appropriate for customers who are generating only a tiny amount of power to sell back, it is not appropriate for those who were truly setting themselves up intending to make money by exporting power to the grid.

Most people attaching to the grid – Meridian is getting about 50 inquiries a week and one connection – are merely generating to reduce what they buy. But Meridian thinks some should be viewed as mini- generators and paid “wholesale” rates for their power.

Because the Government will not implement the “feed-in tariff” regimes seen in countries like Germany, there are no explicit subsidies for generators. But Highet said there is a hidden subsidy. Some customers manage to reduce their power costs so much they qualify for “low user tariffs”, which Highet says were designed for people on tight budgets, not those who have the means to invest in solar arrays.

As well as the boom in households becoming solar generators, businesses are adopting the technology, driven by the investment case as well as the desire to show a greener face.

Those with solar arrays now include Auckland International Airport, cereal maker Hubbards and Vodafone.

Jeroen Brand, from solar engineering company Alphatron Pacific, said there has been only limited take-up from small businesses, though for those which own their own premises, it would be a way of increasing profitability even if they were not trying to project a greener image.

Brand concedes it is hard to run the numbers for the investment case as the future of power prices is uncertain.

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CAPTION:

Shining example: As the prices of solar installations drop, more Kiwis are installing solar arrays and feeding back into the grid.

Picture: Shane Wenzlick, Mike Shaw/Fairfax NZ

Copyright 2012 Independent News Auckland Ltd.

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