Sun shines on Vector roll-out

16:00, Feb 08 2014

Vector is building power stations all over Auckland - they're tiny ones on people's roofs in a scheme proving popular with homeowners.

They are a new generation of mini-solar power plants complete with batteries. The sun-generated electricity can be stored during the day when homeowners are out at work and then used when they return in the evening.

That differs from solar hot water systems which were damned late last year in officials' reports as poor value because they have no battery to store power.

Under the Vector deal, it retains ownership of the solar stations that homeowners lease. The lines company is responsible for maintenance and repair.

In less than a year, Vector has installed just over 250 of the SunGenie mini-power stations on roofs across Auckland, including one on the North Shore home of its chief executive Simon Mackenzie. He was among the first to sign up because he wanted to experience just how they work before they were rolled out.

They've proved so popular that there's now a lengthy waiting list, Mackenzie said.

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The roofs have to be north-facing and not shaded to be suitable.

The homeowner pays $2000 installation costs for the 3 kilowatt system, which includes a fridge-sized battery cabinet, and then a $70 monthly lease payment. Installation takes just a few hours and requires no council planning consent. It can go on either steel rooves or tile, and its low-elevation barely changes the profile of a building.

Most homeowners, including Mackenzie, don't end up selling power back to a retailer though some providers like Contact Energy and Meridian are in the market to buy any that is unwanted. Typically, homeowners use up what is generated to power their lifestyles.

Over the year, half of the power required by an average Auckland home can be provided by the solar stations.

One early adopter was Reece Warren, because he wanted to reduce his carbon footprint. He sells his sparepower to Contact Energy, and is about to receive his first cheque for around $170.

Warren says he's a low power user but the solar system has slashed his bills, so that in many of the months since installation, his only power cost has been the $70 lease fee to Vector.

"It's fantastic," he said. "I could not be a bigger advocate for this system."

Vector estimates average homeowners save around $350 a year on power costs, although savings dip in winter.

During our interview Mackenzie whips out his smartphone and calls up the app which monitors his savings and the current state of his home generation. Given the blazing sun and blue sky outside the battery is rapidly filling and already 87 per cent charged.

The $350-a-year estimated savings may seem small change for a chief executive, but Mackenzietakes a wide approach to cutting his power bills. He's also converted his house to low-power, low-burn-out LED lightbulbs.

And Vector's research shows power costs are such a drag on household budgets that 80 per cent of homeowners are actively engaged in one or more of the "three switching behaviours" to save money.

Those behaviours include; switching power provider, switching off appliances, or switching the way they generate their power.

Some may be wary about solar following Government reports last year which revealed many of the solar hot water heating systems people paid to install are effectively white elephants which lack smart control and monitoring systems, and which will either never produce net savings for owners or only just break even.

But with the installation cost of the Vector scheme being lower than the solar water heating systems, the company paying for maintenance, and the smart monitoring technology (Vector also monitors performance remotely), some of the big disincentives for solar are effectively removed.

Just how big can the scheme get?

Mackenzie expects the current 250 installations over the past ten months to grow substantially with much of that coming from the 30,000 or so new homes due to be built in Auckland each year.

Home redevelopments, such as the one being done by Remuera homeowner Darrell Sveistrup, will also drive uptake.

He's having a SunGenie installed and hopes to generate power surplus to what he needs.

As well as potentially earning extra income, he will be protected from power cuts or loss of power in a natural disaster.

Vector expects take-up to follow the traditional hump-back curve technology adoption usually follows - slow at the start by early adopters and then ramping up as the technology becomes more widely known.

"The economics of putting this technology in versus the retail price is pretty close," Mackenzie said. "In the next 18 months to two years, that will quite likely cross over."

It probably won't be just the savings on offer which will sway people to opt for the scheme.

Having a new toy to play with as well as the bragging rights that come with reducing your carbon footprint are both influencing take-up, Mackenzie says.

And it's not just homeowners installing the new generation of solar. Businesses like EcoStore and Hubbards have adopted solar too.

Sunday Star Times