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High time for NZ to beat the gas blues using sunshine

Opinion

New Zealand is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to solar energy.

Over the last few months, there have been severe disruptions to our electricity grid and soaring power prices due to a failure of our gas-dependent power system. Meanwhile, a cleaner, more reliable and more affordable source of energy is being ignored by policy makers in Wellington. 

It’s remarkable that one of New Zealand’s most intense periods of coal burning has happened during a summer that will be remembered for its oversupply of sunshine, an endless fuel source that could be powering our homes for significantly less cost than coal or gas. Solar in the summer months could be offsetting fossil fuels and providing more affordable power.

But right now, power prices are spiking as trouble continues at New Zealand’s largest gas field, Pohokura, which lies off the Taranaki coast and is owned by Austrian oil giant, OMV. It all began with a valve fault last September, which caused a shutdown at the field. The fault disrupted gas supplies to the electricity grid and caused wholesale electricity prices to soar.

Combined with low lake levels and other temporary outages, gas pushed average prices past $200/MWh – about three times the normal rate – for nearly a month. On some days in October, prices soared to over seven times the average.

The Pohokura shutdown led Genesis Energy to burn record amounts of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel – coal – at its Huntly Power Station, even going as far as to import 120,000 tonnes of it from Indonesia. All this, while the country was baking under a heatwave with long, sunny days.

When it comes to rolling out game-changing technology like solar, New Zealand has well and truly fallen behind the rest of the world.

Over in the UK, solar provided 18% of the electricity supply during one point over winter, while coal burning ground to a halt. During the same time in summery New Zealand, solar barely featured in our generation mix, and coal burning hit a five year peak.

We’ve met less than 4% of our solar potential in New Zealand, and proper political backing of solar is long overdue. Had we seized the solar opportunity sooner, this summer we could have protected hundreds of thousands of people from the power price spikes caused by unreliable gas, while alleviating pressure on our climate.

Right now in New South Wales, the Australian Liberal and Labour Parties - roughly equivalent to our two major political parties - are competing over popular policies, including interest-free loans to support further expansion of an already thriving solar market. Estimates of hundreds of dollars of annual savings on household power bills are being touted.

Back in New Zealand, neither Labour nor National can see what’s right in front of their face. While one talks of resuscitating offshore oil and gas drilling and the other pins its hopes on future hydrogen technology, the already proven, cost-effective and abundant sun continues frying our necks, when it could be frying our dinner.

Some communities are taking power into their own hands, like Kaitaia College, which has just installed the largest solar school array in New Zealand’s history and is set to save tens of thousands of dollars on power bills, while supplying affordable clean energy back to the community on weekends and holidays. This localised power supply can also provide a critical community hub during power outages from the more frequent and intense storms that climate change is bringing.

With some of the highest power prices in the country, tapping into Northland’s huge solar potential is an important solution to making energy more affordable and our electricity supply more resilient.

But it’s not enough to expect schools, communities, and households to front up the cash to fix our struggling grid. If the Government is serious about tackling climate change and making our energy system more affordable, we need to see a 2019 Budget brimming with support for solar, wind, batteries, and other clean energy technologies.

The persistent problems at Pohokura gas field this summer are a reminder that gas is not only a dirty fuel, but it’s also an unreliable fuel.

Greenpeace is calling on the Government to solarise half a million homes in the next ten years through an interest-free loan on panels and a battery. Not only would this help to reduce our dependence on climate polluting energy, but it would put power back in the hands of New Zealanders; increase the resilience of the national grid; and lower our power bills in the bargain.

Amanda Larsson is Greenpeace's climate and energy campaigner.