New Zealand should be a leader in solar energy

Japan is in a crisis. Since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, which crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, 59 of its nuclear power plants have been closed for the first time in 40 years. The world’s fourth largest energy consumer is running out of power.

As a result of the nuclear shutdown, Japan’s remaining electricity generation infrastructure is under threat from overloading.

The heavily populated and industrialised first world nation is looking at the prospect of unprecedented rolling brownouts as power shortages shut down parts of the country.

Nuclear power generation previously made up 30 per cent of Japan’s power output.

This gap has not been filled by alternative power sources, such as hydro electricity, which provides about 8 per cent of Japan’s power.

Japan has tried to fill the shortfall by importing huge amounts of liquid petroleum gas (LPG). It currently burns an extra 400,000 barrels of fuel every day.

This costs at least US$100 million (NZ$125m) a day and is contributing to Japan’s worst ever trade deficit, as well as being disastrous in terms of Japan’s contribution to greenhouse gases. Japan now depends on oil, coal and gas for 90 per cent of its power. Not surprisingly, it is now looking at renewable energy sources, such as solar.

With peak power consumption about to start with the onset of Japan’s hot summer and a surge in air-conditioning use, the government has mounted a Super Cool Biz campaign in an effort to conserve power.

Promoting everything from air-conditioners being set at 28 degrees Celsius, switching off computers not in use, and shifting more work hours to the morning, the Super Cool Biz campaign has also placed full-page advertisements in key newspapers, urging workers to don short sleeves and running shoes as well as jeans and sandals – suitable for the office yet cool enough to endure the summer heat.

For image and status-conscious Japan this is a profound shift and highlights how serious the power crisis is. Aucklanders weren’t so badly off when they had to put up with generators dotted along Queen St during the power crisis of the mid-1990s.

The irony of Japan’s over-reliance on one source of energy is that now the nation is quickly trying to become a leader in alternative energy, in particular solar, wind and wave energy.

It is in solar energy that we can learn a lot from Japan. Solar generation is now a national priority with the Japanese Government.

It is doing as much as possible to encourage people and business to switch to solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. With a generous feed-in tariff scheme of 42 yen (about NZ68 cents) per kilowatt hour, utilities will have to pay for solar power fed back into the national grid.

This is twice as much as consumers in Japan pay for conventional electricity bought off the grid, and so the growth of solar power in Japan has already been exponential. It will also encourage the further investment needed to ensure that renewable energy becomes mainstream.

In fact, Japan is one of the top five countries manufacturing solar panels and systems, but also has the third largest solar capacity in the world, behind Germany and Spain, with most of its grid connected.

International solar-panel producers, such as Canadian Solar, the fifth biggest manufacturer of solar cells in the world, have set up production facilities in Japan, with other large companies following suit. The rate at which large companies and investors are rushing to switch to solar PV means that new renewable power will be delivered in Japan by next month.

There are several lessons for New Zealand. First, we should similarly not take for granted our reliance on a few modes of power, such as hydro and oil, when more generation is required in tough times, so we should increase the energy mix by including others forms, such as solar PV.

This model allows electricity to be generated at point of use, which means it does not have to be moved around the country, saving consumers considerable costs of about 35 per cent of current power bills.

The New Zealand Government could do more and provide leadership and incentives for communities and businesses to use more solar power, and not only with pricing mechanisms to feed back into the grid.

For example, our Government could, as in Japan, make it easier to use land for solar projects, bypassing the Resource Management Act hurdles that might deter investors or by providing tax incentives to implement solar.

Unfortunately, there was nothing in the recent Budget, which would have been a chance for the Government to show some leadership, although it did include $4.6 billion to be invested in the national grid over 10 years.

Despite that investment, it is more of the same, and little looks set to change. Then we have the partial selldown of state-owned enterprises, which will undoubtedly result in electricity price rises under the mixed ownership model. When will Kiwis have had enough?

New Zealand is blessed with abundant sunshine hours, so solar is a very viable option. The cost of solar PV systems has fallen 50 per cent in the last 18 months to the point where it is not only a feasible and practical solution, but a good investment for consumers and commercial businesses. SAFE Engineering in South Auckland, for example, has built New Zealand’s largest solar power installation, which supplies 70 per cent of its electricity.

The demands on our centralised electricity generation model, including moving power around the country, will only increase, especially with the introduction of electric cars, which some companies are now looking to use as their fleet vehicles by the end of the year.

Solar electricity systems, as one of the best examples of clean technology, have the potential to provide many new jobs and contribute to development of the economy as the chain of suppliers needed to support the industry grows.

We have the opportunity to be a world leader in solar energy, but the time to act is now. Tomorrow may be too late.

By Brendan Winitana, chairman of the Sustainable Electricity Association of New Zealand.