Learning to access new power sources

Last updated 13:00 21/02/2014

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OPINION: Education is a most powerful lever for social change.

This week's official launch of the Nelson-led Solar Schools initiative - at Richmond's Henley School - marks another small step towards New Zealand catching up with countries in an area it could be a world leader in.

Principal John Armstrong has done his sums and knows the school is on to a winner. Other schools will be watching with keen interest.

The 60 photovoltaic panels installed at Henley cost $40,000 - or one year's total power bill for the school. It's estimated they'll save $4800 a year on today's prices, a direct saving on the $40,000 yearly bill.

Mr Armstrong says the panels will be paid off in seven years, meaning pure profit from them for the remaining 18 years of their expected life.

One clear advantage of free-source energy systems is that, as mainstream commercial power charges continue to rise, the return on investment improves. Though some potential users have been waiting and hoping for the capital cost of solar panels to come down, this has happened markedly in the past 10 years to the point they are now more viable.

Solar Schools is a collaboration between the Nelson Environment Centre, SolarCity, and the Nelson Building Society. All schools around New Zealand can register with Solar Schools, whose team will advise on the best funding model for each school.

As exciting as it is for Henley School and solar enthusiasts in this region, the reality is that New Zealand - despite ample sunshine - is lagging behind many other areas, most notably Germany. It is the world's biggest installer of photovoltaic panels, and 3 per cent of Germany's total electricity needs are currently met by solar power, but it has a goal of producing 35 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 100 per cent by 2050. By contrast, solar power in New Zealand last year was generating just 0.1 percent of the country's electricity.

Mr Armstrong saw firsthand on a recent sabbatical to Asia how far behind the play New Zealand is. Schools in that region are all kitted out with solar, he says. In Australia, some 1500 schools have signed up for a similar initiative also called Solar Schools. Given the battle for school funding and fast returns cited by the likes of Mr Armstrong - who says he has been researching the topic for at least a decade - the mystery is why there is not more support from the Ministry of Education for solar initiatives.

Schools are particularly well placed to take advantage of the technology. They have significant roof space. Their main need for power comes during the day when the panels are fizzing. During the long summer holidays they would be able to return a large amount of power to the national grid, generating returns for the school. Where are the negatives?

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School budgets aside, perhaps the most important long-term gain from Solar Schools will come in a couple of decades. Current pupils will go into the world with greater appreciation of the benefits of solar power than earlier generations. Changing the world begins at home.

- The Nelson Mail

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