Can we fix it? Powering the engine of the solar revolution

Solar power is changing - not just how we generate power from the Sun, but where we are setting up solar panels. And thanks to innovations like rechargeable solar batteries and falling prices for generating power, a solar revolution may be upon us.

Your weird Uncle Lenny is off-base (though what’s new?): in fact, you can still get power from solar energy when it’s cloudy. It’s not 1985 anymore, even if the Ayatollah still makes the headlines every now and again.

In fact, solar energy is undergoing perhaps its greatest period of disruption since, well, the technology was first developed. Rechargeable batteries that can store solar energy to be used later (see: Tesla’s Powerwall). Solar panels (or even tiles) that can be installed on the roofs of homes. Solar-powered (at least in part) vehicles becoming more and more common on roads. Big projects like the 1,314 solar panels at Yealands Winery (capable of generating 411.12 kilowatts of solar power, which is equivalent to powering 86 New Zealand homes, will offset 82 tonnes of CO2 emissions, and is Aotearoa's largest solar installation), the 90,000 solar-powered LED lights on the Auckland Harbour Bridge installed by Vector, and Meridian's work in building the Maama Mai ("let there be light") Solar Farm in Tongatapu, Tonga that has 5,760 photovoltaic solar panels and can generate up to 1.32 megawatts of electricity. Companies such as Harrisons offering solar installation. Even campaigns like HRV and Y&R giving light to solar-powered alternatives to launch HRV Solar.

And, while it still makes up a relatively small amount of total energy generation, it's good for climate change. According to The Drawdown, solar farms and rooftop solar ar the 8th and 10th most effective solution, respectively. 

Andrew Booth, CEO of Solarcity (a company which provides solar power to residential properties), says a big shift is the falling cost of producing solar energy. “We ran a study 10 years ago which revealed that while 85 percent of Kiwis loved the idea of going solar, the majority were put off by the upfront cost,” he says. “While costs have dropped since then, they are still a big barrier. That’s one of the reasons we launched our solarZero energy service back in early 2015. Instead of homeowners buying and maintaining a solar system, they pay a low fixed monthly fee for our service that delivers solar power without any product or installation costs. We own and manage the system for them for 20 years.”

A bit different than the old days of massive “solar farms” in blindingly bright, usually arid locations that conjure images of Death Valley, huh?

Booth goes on to say that there has been massive growth in the use of solar, particularly at the residential level.

“Solar is really starting to take off,” he says. “The residential solar market in New Zealand has grown by about 240 percent over the past three years. In January 2015, there were 4,796 small-scale solar connections in New Zealand. By the end of January 2018, there were 16,435 residential solar installations.”

“Last year the International Energy Agency published a report that said solar PV had been developing significantly in New Zealand and would help the nation reach, and even exceed, a target of 90 percent renewable electricity generation by 2025.”

That report, Energy Policies of IEA Countries - New Zealand 2017 Review from the International Energy Agency (IEA), certainly paints a fairly rosy picture of Aotearoa’s energy future – good news considering our greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were almost 25 percent higher than they were in 1990, and one of the worst per capita rates in the world.

Of course, the benefits of solar are obvious: by combining solar energy with other renewable energies we can burn fewer fossil fuels to generate energy. And now that it’s getting cheaper to do so, it’s gaining widespread popularity since more people can afford it – and, with solar, you're less vulnerable to fluctuating electricity prices.

Now, the change seems to be happening quickly. Tony Seba, from Stanford University, predicts the combination of solar, battery and electric vehicle technology is creating change that will be as rapid and unforeseen as the switch from horse-drawn carriages to cars in the early 20th century. 

There’s more tech, too. Solarcity’s Booth says his company’s service includes an app that lets people monitor and control how much energy a home uses, by allowing users to track how much solar power is being generated and how much is being used or exported back to the larger power grid. “It also shows your overall energy use,” he says. “These personal insights can help you improve your home’s energy efficiency and reduce costs. The app can also be used to schedule when key appliances, including a hot water cylinder, are on or off so you can make the most of your solar energy and reduce your grid power use.”

When it comes to more control of energy use – and falling prices for solar – there’s more than just the Tesla Powerwall. Panasonic also has its own rechargeable solar battery, which Booth says Solarcity is New Zealand’s exclusive supplier of (in addition to being certified installers for the Powerwall). As the sun shines at times when power use is low, it hasn't always been the best option. But being able to store that energy changes everything. 

So… the future? Booth doesn’t hesitate to talk about the disruption taking place – and its benefits. “Solar and battery storage are giving Kiwi homeowners more energy independence and control over their energy bills,” he says. “As the price of battery technology drops they will also be able to save money. It’s worth looking at what’s happening in Australia. An article in Renew Economy this week estimates solar and storage are now significantly cheaper than grid power. Battery storage can also provide a backup supply when the grid goes down.”

The 'Can We Fix It?' series, which looks at how we're using innovation and ingenuity to try and solve some of our thorniest problems, is brought to you by KiwibankKiwibank is passionate about the future of New Zealand, and about making Kiwis better off. They’re 100% Kiwi-owned, which means their profits stay right here in New Zealand.

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