Editorial: Less than illuminating

Last updated 05:00 22/12/2012

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OPINION: Ordinarily it would befit a solar water-heating project to generate more heat than light.

But Nelson-based SolarCity hasn't been generating nearly enough light about a pilot scheme that seems to have changed in the dark.

The company is central to the pilot supported, but not funded, by Venture Southland and endorsed by Invercargill city, Southland and Gore district councils. What's more it was a tad controversial with a competitor company complaining that the pilot was really a channel for SolarCity to gain business in the south by gaining a large list of potential customers as people sought to become one of the 25 businesses and home owners in the pilot.

A successful pilot could have led to a scheme similar to one started in Nelson in 2009 to allow people to take out a council loan for a solar hot water system and pay it back through rates. As it happens, the Nelson City Council has discontinued it because the uptake fell seriously short of projections.

Southland's scheme was announced as a year-long pilot which makes its findings overdue. Certainly, Venture has been drumming its fingers.

But now SolarCity's chief executive Andrew Booth says that it's a longitudinal study liable to take, oh, three years.

This is particularly curious given that the company's own website, not to mention Venture's, continued to cite it as a single-year study. How very forgetful.

Unless, of course, the scope of the pilot has been quietly and unilaterally expanded.

How could this be? Well, for one thing, the company doesn't recommend hooking up solar panels to hot water cylinders that are older than five years. Southland, you will all be astonished to learn, has an older housing stock so more than just a few of its water heaters are older than that and the replacement costs are seen as potentially prohibitive.

Round about now we find ourselves recalling that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, announced what she acknowledged were unexpected conclusions in her investigation into the wider environmental merits of solar heating.

It does save electricity, but not in the coldest, darkest months when it's needed most, so from a nationwide perspective it would do little to flatten the peak electricity demands that require the construction of more fossil fuel plants.

Mr Booth is now looking beyond solar water heating panels to something different - photovoltaic panels which generate power rather than just heating water. The cost of these has been falling and it may make more economic sense to look at that for regions like Southland, he says.

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And he may well be right. But factor in that SolarCity has won a huge contract to fit all 2200 homes in Christchurch's new Highfield subdivision with solar energy systems, with the possibility of more to come, and you have a company that has potentially been able to leverage credibility nationwide by getting local government and agencies like Venture on board. Which is fine, when it comes up with the goods.

As things stand, we're told an interim report on the Southland "longitudinal study" will be made in March.

How on earth the pilot quietly morphed is a question neither the company, nor Venture, has so far been anxious to clarify.

- The Southland Times

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