Solar answer to rising power bills

Last updated 13:34 29/04/2013

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Winter is coming and so are increased power bills, but some Nelsonians have found the solution by switching to solar power. Laura Basham reports.

Stoke resident Iain Campbell is $550 in credit on his power bill. In Nelson Arthur Jonas' bill is $140 in credit and in Richmond Terry Byrne's it is $300-odd.

When most households are worrying about paying increasing electricity bills, they are not. That's because their homes have grid-connected photovoltaic solar panels generating their own power from the sun.

Coming out of summer these have generated more power than they have used so their electricity bills are in credit. Going into winter their PV systems will continue to generate power and while the amount might dip a little they're not worried if they need to turn on a heater because they're in credit.

As electricity prices rise, the solar power costs have dropped.

Nelson-based company Solar Electric Technology directors Lance Double and Frank Witowski were at the Christchurch Home Show this month and asked people how much they thought it would cost to have a PV system. Many, with plans for their new homes, thought around $40,000.

"For the average user to put in PV it's between $11,000 and $15,000, but these people were still in times of three or four years ago," said Mr Witowski.

Since 2008 they have seen a 75 per cent reduction in the price of PV solar panels, helped by the strong dollar with the equipment mostly coming from China.

That's made it more affordable for home owners to buy, and they are now selling four or five systems a week nationally.

They believe it's the big picture answer to the problem of ever rising electricity bills and are frustrated at continual talk about the problem rather than the solution.

"This country is fantastic, it has so much sunshine; it could be run on 20 per cent solar and you wouldn't have to upgrade transmission lines, if they could put in a small incentive."

Others have come up with plans to cut household power bills. Nelson Tasman Energy Team, now renamed Kiwi Energy Trust, fronted by Nelson mayor Aldo Miccio, is asking consumers to join in a collective buying power scheme. They want 20,000 people to register their interest by the end of the month so they can then negotiate with energy suppliers on their behalf to bring lower power rates, saving up to 20 per cent.

Last week Labour and the Greens presented their plans to establish a single buyer to negotiate cheaper power prices for everyone, saying it could save households up to $300 a year.

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Mr Double says he will be surprised if the energy retailers would go with that. "If the power companies are looking at selling to overseas buyers they are going to want to see a profit."

Meridian Energy general manager retail Bill Highet has said high electricity transmission costs to Nelson mean that energy retailers are unlikely to provide the lower prices the Nelson Energy Team Trust hoped for. The problem for Nelson was that its electricity transmission costs were high because of the limited generation in the area which meant electricity came a long way from the southern lakes over lines that had constraints. When the lakes were low the wholesale price went up and retailers took that into account in pricing.

Mr Double believes the answer is local generation - taking power from the panels on the consumer's roof.

No incentives are offered for householders to install solar power, apart from Kiwibank which will contribute $2000 towards the cost of the system for its home loan customers. The Government has ended its $1000 grant for solar water heating.

A year ago the Nelson City Council decided to discontinue its Solar Saver scheme in favour of investigating solar photovoltaic power generation technology. Mr Miccio says councillor Derek Shaw is finalising a report to present to the council shortly.

Mr Double believes the best incentive for using grid-connected PV systems would be for the energy retailers to be required to pay one-for-one rates, - buying and selling the energy at the same rate.

"Generating solar during the day you sell at 17.3c to the grid and buy it back at night at 25c. That's not fair because that's your energy. All we're asking is to store the energy in their grid during the day, if they were to buy and sell back at the same price that would be fair."

WHAT IS PV? Photovoltaic technology uses solar panels to generate electricity and can be connected to the national grid, allowing for excess electricity to be returned to the grid.

- Nelson

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