All power to the solar industry

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Nelson MP Nick Smith's view that Nelson could and should be a New Zealand, even international, leader in embracing solar water heating is hard to fault, the Nelson Mail said in an editorial on Monday.

Reliably high sunshine levels and a long-established environmental whakapapa leave the region well placed to be at the forefront when it comes to tapping the sun's energy. In addition, Nelson has an established solar energy clique: from d-i-y enthusiasts and passionate pioneers to traditional plumbing companies which have profitably embraced green principles. The country's only solar appliance testing facility is also located here.

Solar water heating has gone mainstream in recent years, and for good reason. Though the payback from an initial investment of around $7000 is currently estimated to be 10 years, each increase in the cost of electricity boosts the solar savings. Just as Nelson families installing the panels might anticipate cutting their electricity bills by at least a third, making greater use of the technology is also in the national interest.

In an energy-hungry world, the sun's power is abundant, renewable and free. Encouraging more homeowners to loosen the electricity shackles by going solar will not be enough to eliminate the need to build expensive and often bitterly challenged new power stations, but it could help buy the existing infrastructure some time. It would also slash carbon production - 1.5 tonnes a year for every household system, according to Dr Smith.

National proposes boosting solar water heating in two ways: doubling the government subsidy to $1000 for putting in new systems and cutting away much of the red tape. The party suggests the convoluted and controversial consent process be done away with for systems with 10-year guarantees put in place by accredited installers. Hear hear.

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority - curiously named in the circumstances - has not been rushed off its feet to pay out the Government's $500 household grant. Of 11 industry representatives at a meeting in Nelson on Friday to discuss the issue, none had applied for the subsidy in the past financial year, and they were pointing the finger firmly at the "paperwork war" that must be won in order to get it. Solar installations actually dropped throughout the country last year, down 4 percent on 2006. So much for efficiency.

It seems curious that, having won the opportunity to rework the country's solar water heating system, the Green Party seems to have strangled it in red tape. It is bizarre that uptake has dropped following the establishment of a subsidy scheme supposed to promote it. Yes, new residential building has slipped recently as a consequence of high mortgage interest rates and waning confidence, and not all of the blame can be attributed to the Government or its supporting parties. But solar water heating makes so much sense that it is unfortunate that efforts to advance it seem to be failing.

National has been criticised for being late and reluctant to join the Green bandwagon. However, regardless of whether its conversion is based on political pragmatism or new-found environmental enthusiasm, its policy on this issue - it aims to more than double the current installation rate - is sensible, practical and welcome. The Government, for all its talk of carbon neutrality "aspirations", has some ground to make up to reestablish its environmental credentials.