Solar innovation paves way for savings

JAMIE SMALL
Last updated 05:00 17/03/2014

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S 4 Solar has been installing solar power systems in houses and businesses for six years, and now the company is finding new ways to develop the industry.

"S4 Solar: it's like ‘A for apple'," say managing director Ben Stanton. "We'll get it into alphabet books!"

Solar power is a rapidly growing industry, and if Green Party MP Gareth Hughes gets his way, the government will be pushing it as an alternative for households.

Stanton, an electrician, runs S4 Solar with his wife Madelyn, and has been specialising in solar power since 2008.

But Stanton isn't just an installer, he's an innovator, and he says his new technologies can make solar power justifiable for many Kiwi homes, even without government subsidies.

His product - the Feed in Fighter - controls the use of solar power during peak sunshine hours, making the best use of cheap solar electricity.

Any excess power generated by a solar system can be fed back in to the grid and sold to the power companies. "The problem is if you export a lot, they'll pay you 25 cents for the first bucketload, then only 10 cents a unit."

Power companies sell electricity for around 25 to 30 cents per unit (kilowatt hour).

Stanton says a lot of people expect to make money selling power to the grid, but the real profit is made by using the cheap power in-house rather than having to buy electricity off the big companies.

Unfortunately most people are out of the home during the day while the sun is shining, so not many appliances are being used.

That is where the Feed in Fighter comes in.

The device automatically turns on appliances at certain times during the day to make the best use of the solar power being generated. This prevents the owner having to sell excess power during the day and buy it back during peak power times at night.

It can be used to turn on washing machines, deep freezes, spa heaters or any other appliance that doesn't need to run all day.

Stanton says that depending on the buyer's needs, the Feed in Fighter can double the financial benefit of a solar panel system.

"You're cash-flow positive from day one. But if you export all your power you're cash-flow negative.

And that's just the beginning. Stanton is developing the Feed in Fighter Version 2, which is even smarter than the original.

The new device - which will be released later this year - turns appliances on and off depending on the weather, and can be controlled remotely via smartphone or computer.

While he welcomes government support for solar power, Stanton says subsidies and interest-free loans might not be the best way. He says industry growth will happen naturally if systems provide enough financial benefit.

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"If Labour and the Greens get in, I think it's going to benefit solar. But to be fair, I think the Feed in Fighter will have more impact on the industry than legislation," he said.

"The general problem [with subsidies] is paying for something that only a few are going to benefit from."

He says solar power systems are a long-term investment and wouldn't suit everyone.

He fears government subsidies would encourage inexperienced electricians to cash in on the solar market. The market lacks regulation, and could become a "cowboy industry" with cheap systems that pose a fire risk, or are simply a bad investment.

As well as S4 Solar's core business of installing complete off-grid systems and grid tie-in systems all over New Zealand, Stanton is negotiating deals to export the Feed in Fighter to Australia, the Pacific islands and even further afield.

"That's going to be a global product."

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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