$100m 'world-leading' solar plant will be 50 times bigger than any in New Zealand

STACY SQUIRES
New Zealand’s biggest solar power plant will produce enough electricity to power 30,000 homes, and allow electric planes to recharge.

New Zealand’s biggest solar power plant will produce enough electricity to power 30,000 homes, and allow planes to pull up and recharge.

The $100 million plant will cover the equivalent of 262 rugby fields at Christchurch Airport. Alongside it will go green fuel production, data centres and vertical farming.

Announced on Wednesday, the whole precinct will be known as Kōwhai Park. It will be built on 400 hectares of airport land just west of the airport’s runways and terminal, and be scaled up over 30 years.

Its first tenant will be Solar Bay, an Australian renewable energy fund.

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A computerised impression of the solar plant to be built on land at Christchurch Airport.
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A computerised impression of the solar plant to be built on land at Christchurch Airport.

Solar Bay investment director Jack Sherratt called the project “innovative, far ahead of its time and absolutely world-leading in every sense”.

He said they would have solar panels installed within two years and achieve their target of generating 150 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 20 per cent of Christchurch homes – within five to seven years.

The array of solar panels would be “50 times larger than any existing array in the country – and it’s just the beginning”, he said. Battery storage would be built alongside to provide power when the sun was not shining.

Jack Sherratt of Solar Bay talks to Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr, right, at the Kōwhai Park site.
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Jack Sherratt of Solar Bay talks to Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr, right, at the Kōwhai Park site.

Sherratt said the flat, sunny location near Orion’s lines network and Transpower’s national grid pylons made it ideal for the plant.

The power would supply the airport plus businesses both inside and outside Kōwhai Park, and could feed into the national grid, he said.

The Kōwhai Park site is owned by Environment Canterbury, and leased to Christchurch Airport. It is covered by airport noise contour restrictions.

Christchurch Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns discusses the company's plans to create a solar farm next to the airport.

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel said the project would help secure a low carbon future for upcoming generations.

“There is nothing else of this scale in New Zealand,” she said.

Freshly returned from the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Climate Change Minister James Shaw called it “a good news day for the climate”.

Shaw said Kōwhai Park was “the ultimate build-it-and-they-will-come project”.

An impression of how Kōwhai Park and its solar plant will look.
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An impression of how Kōwhai Park and its solar plant will look.

Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns said the project was about enabling the economy to “decarbonise at the fastest possible rate”.

They would offer long-term leases at Kōwhai Park to organisations wanting a site to generate and store “green fuels”.

Johns said airlines would soon by buying craft powered by hydrogen, electricity, or sustainable aviation fuels, and Christchurch Airport would be able to refuel and recharge them.

Climate Minister James Shaw says the announcement of the solar power plant is good news for the climate.
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Climate Minister James Shaw says the announcement of the solar power plant is good news for the climate.

While the land’s proximity to airport runways and high-voltage pylons made it unattractive to most tenants, it was perfect for a solar plant and a cluster of businesses needing clean energy, he said.

They would make sites available for data centres and vertical farming operators, and were already to talking to potential tenants, he said.

Vertical farming grows food inside buildings on multiple levels, while data centres are power-hungry storage for computers providing internet or cloud services.

“If 400ha isn’t ultimately enough, we have options across the campus to double this footprint over time.”

The site of the new precinct sits just west of the Christchurch Airport runways.
STACY SQUIRES/Stuff
The site of the new precinct sits just west of the Christchurch Airport runways.

Christchurch Airport, New Zealand’s second busiest, is 75 per cent owned by the city council and 25 per cent by the Government.

As a property developer, the airport already has income-generating industrial and office parks and a shopping centre.

New Zealand’s largest solar plant connected to the national grid is the 2.1 megawatt Kapuni plant, commissioned in Taranaki this year by the Todd Corporation.

It has 5800 solar panels and can generate enough electricity for more than 520 homes.

Christchurch Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns says the project will allow the airport to decarbonise as fast as possible.
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Christchurch Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns says the project will allow the airport to decarbonise as fast as possible.