Councils around the country going solar

Nelson is heading a nationwide campaign to be launched in Wellington today aimed at encouraging all New Zealand councils to embrace solar energy.

The campaign, dubbed the "solar promise", was to be launched this afternoon by Nelson Mayor Aldo Miccio and his deputy, Ali Boswijk. They are urging all other mayors and their councils to consider solar options for their communities.

The Nelson City Council, Nelson Environment Centre and Nelson-based solar power company solarcity are behind the campaign. They want councils, the Government, individuals and businesses to do what they can to help drive down the cost of solar-power installation.

Meridian Energy's general manager of retail, Bill Highet, said the power company supported the campaign as part of its commitment to renewable and sustainable energy.

It follows Nelson's Solar Saver campaign, launched in 2009, which offers incentives for home owners to install energy-saving solar water-heating schemes.

Several local government leaders were expected to be at the launch, timed to coincide with the Local Government New Zealand Conference, including Hastings mayor and Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule, whose council is looking at Nelson's scheme for its community.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, whose council is implementing solar saver schemes this year, and Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt were also expected to be there, plus Gore District Mayor Tracy Hicks and Southland District Mayor Frana Cardno, whose councils are running the country's first regional solar pilot.

Whanganui council is including discussions on the introduction of the scheme in its upcoming 10-year plan process. Mayor Annette Main was expected to be at the briefing.

Mr Miccio said Nelson wanted to show leadership in its sustainability principles, and saw the conference in Wellington as a good way to promote its solar saver scheme.

The $9 million scheme gave residents the chance to install a solar hot-water system and pay it back, plus interest, through their rates.

Each installation attracts a $1000 subsidy from the Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority (EECA).

The scheme, which has seen 200 in Nelson sign up – the programme allows for an uptake of 700 – has hit a few stumbling blocks, but these were addressed in the council's recent annual plan process, Mr Miccio said.

The council-imposed interest rate on the loan for a solar heating system, which was higher than average bank rates, and the cost of the systems themselves, had put off residents taking up the scheme.

A survey in June last year that asked 65 homeowners why they had pulled out of the scheme after signing up showed cost was a major reason for 51 of them. They found it did not work out to be "such a good deal". Four thought the systems too difficult to install, two said suppliers' products did not appeal and one noted poor service from a supplier.

Mr Miccio said the council had lowered the interest rate to make it more competitive with bank rates. The cost of the solar energy systems had also been lowered through discounts achieved on bulk importing by suppliers. The average cost so far has worked out about $6000.

Mr Miccio was confident these changes would boost numbers signing up. Last year, 159 homeowners signed up to a solar saver agreement but only 24 had signed up so far this year.

The council also came under heat from the solar industry for choosing to operate using four preferred suppliers. It was warned by the Commerce Commission last December of concerns about its advertising of the loan scheme, and took steps to ensure it complied with the Fair Trading Act.

Mr Miccio said councils wanting to pick up the scheme would make their own calls on suppliers.