Thursday, August 18, 2022

Farm shares positive energy vibe in project

Farmers may find they can add “electricity generation” to their income stream descriptors in coming years if a Hawke’s Bay power project proves successful. Richard Rennie spoke to the CEO of Ara Ake, the government-sponsored company responsible for helping push for more sustainable and innovative energy options on farms and in cities.

Ongaonga farmers Greg and Liz Wilson are participating in an electricity sharing project with their solar panels that promises to not only distribute surplus power around their farm outlets, but also supply others in the community.

But, unlike some of the multi-hectare solar sites proposed around New Zealand, the Wilsons’ scheme could represent a smaller scale, community-focused supply opportunity with a smaller footprint, and is far less likely to raise the ire of other communities.

Ara Ake CEO Cristiano Marantes says that, even more importantly, such a scheme puts farmers firmly in the centre of energy transition.

Ara Ake was founded two years ago as New Zealand’s pathway to decarbonising became more defined, and is tasked by the government with accelerating the delivery of low-emission energy solutions. 

“The technology we want to trial in projects like this tends to be more leading edge than bleeding edge. It is often tech that just needs a bit of a nudge to get it to the commercial stage,” says Marantes.

The Wilsons’ farm solar project was already in place when Ara Ake engaged with them through Our Energy, Flick Electric and SkySolar to trial an innovation called multiple trading relationships (MTR).

The main aim of MTR is to introduce greater competition into the electricity supply sector by, for example, offering more choice in how locally generated electricity is distributed and sold.

Marantes likens the concept to an Uber for electricity supply. 

“At present you are only able to buy power from one supplier. It’s like being told you can only shop at one store, or only have one bank. No other area is as restricted,” he says. 

“MTR aims to enable a small-scale electricity generator, like the Wilsons, to not only supply multiple connection points around their farm, but to also send any surplus electricity to other selected buyers.”

Greg Wilson says he has always been interested in solar power as an option for their 550ha  property, having installed their system three years ago. He uses the electricity to supply the family home, mother-in-law’s home and the irrigation pump. 

The MTR scheme has the endorsement of the Minister of Energy and Resources, Megan Woods, who hopes bringing more competition into the energy sector and sharing resources more widely will ultimately bring down costs and help to lower emissions more quickly. 

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The project is only in its second month, but Marantes says it is also revealing other benefits, aside from the opportunity to establish localised, self-reliant low emissions and commercially viable community-based energy hubs.

“It was initially also about consumer choice. But, as the project has progressed, we’ve seen it also be about helping to deal with energy hardship, having a role to play in reducing the cost of electricity and making it available to those who can’t always afford it,” he says.

He says a generator like the Wilsons with excess solar could be happy to effectively donate their surplus to someone struggling to pay their conventional power supply bill.

“We know there are a lot of people with solar who have the means and the desire to help out in this way, and enabling regulatory changes could achieve that.”

Being able to prove tangible benefits to consumers and viable commercial prospects is a vital outcome of the MTR project. 

Unlike some multi-supply schemes proposed overseas, the Ara Ake project does not require separate hardware and meters, with supply input and electricity output all managed digitally.

If proven, it will justify a change of the Electricity Participation Code, which currently prevents a customer from purchasing power from more than one company at any given time.

Marantes makes no secret of the fact that Ara Ake’s work is intended to disrupt conventional power supply models, possibly explaining why at this stage large retailers are not on board with the project.

However, he also sees the potential for large retailer/generator involvement in smaller community-based schemes. They are likely to become easier to get over the line in the future as the country’s demand for electricity grows, and large-scale projects become tougher to justify on cost and environmental grounds.

“It is a completely different way of supplying power and is quite a confronting model. But farmers like Greg and Liz are keen to do things right, and this is a chance for farmers everywhere to see the benefits clearly demonstrated,” says Marantes.

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