Queenstown Spa proves solar can power large facilities

When Aro Hā Wellness Retreat first opened last January, founding partner Damian Chaparro never thought he'd see such staggering results from the investment in renewable energy in the first year of business. 

Damian says, "Aro Hā is a massive site, it takes a lot to power it, especially in winter. When my business partner Chris Madison and I came up with the idea, we decided the facility should produce as much of its own power as possible. This wold meet our vision for how the retreat should operate." 

Aro Hā installed what has ultimately become the largest solar battery backup installation in New Zealand, using solarcity NZ's solar photovoltaic technology, as well as its solar hot water solutions. In its first year, Aro Hā produced 65 percent of its own energy from renewable systems on site. When it goes of grid and produces 100 percent of its own energy, the facility can operate reasonably close to capacity. 

"In practice, the solar PV system is more efficient than expected, and actually outperforms the engineers' expectations." 

Integrated vision 

Aro Hā is a first-of-its-kind retreat featuring a holistic, intensive wellness experience focused on self-sufficiency and results. The guest experience is unparalleled, Damian says. "We differ from anything else in Australasia in both the function of the facility and its approach to supporting life transformation through wellness adventure." 

Luxury spas and retreats like Aro Hā can make a significant imprint on land and resources to function. Damian says owners of facilities like his need to consider innovative renewable practices to ease effects on the local environment.

"Wellness isn't just about your body. It's about how we live in relation to our environment. Using renewable nervy sources should be a cornerstone of holistic health, and this includes the health of our planet.

We do everything we can at Aro Hā to be sustainable. We collect rainwater from the roof for the gardens. These gardens grow most of the food that feed the guests. We store crops in cellars refrigerated by the ambient temperatures of the earth. It's an all-round approach that meets our business model." 

Energy choices

The founding partners' decision to choose renewable energy meant they needed a solar company to deliver on their vision. solarcity came on board to install both solar hot water and photovoltaic panels. As the nation's leading solar power company, they were able to meet the brief Damian and Chris asked for.

Damian says, "You want to work with an experienced company when you're talking about the kind of functionality we were after, especially if you plan to spend some of the time completely off the grid. solarcity is not only the country's leading solar power company, but they have carboNZero accreditation and a mission to make New Zealand 100 per cent renewable - so we shared a lot of the same values."

solarcity provided detailed design for both the solar thermal and PV solutions. Aro Hā also has a micro hydro generation unit and a wood fired boiler, which help to power the facility year round, especially in the winter months. 

The solar panels have a peak output of 75kW and, in summer, produce the majority of the power the retreat uses each day. The solar hot water tubes produce enough energy to keep a 3,000-litre water tank hot enough to warm the entire site, as well as a 10,000-litre spa that stays at 40 degrees. 

Building management system 

The state of the art building management system was a crucial piece of the design and construction of the facility. It had to be able to efficiently convert energy from sun and water to electricity and power the facility round the clock and through the seasons. It had to be easy to use and maximise energy flows. 

Staff use the system to prioritise use of power at all times, sell excess back to the grid, or buy power at key times when it's needed to top up what's created on site. 

Scott Cotes at Aro Hā directs the building management system to take advantage of all available renewable power. 

"The solar tubes on the roof are fantastic at making hot water. Through last year they made around 70,000kWh worth, and we used al of it. The savings long term from the solar hot water, the PV array - everything we've installed will have a huge financial benefit as the years go by." 

Scott says he always tries to maximise energy use. 

"Our goal is to hit that 80-85 percent self-sufficiency mark when we're connected to the grid and we've been able to do that consistently. When we go off grid and create 100 percent of the energy we're using, we survive pretty well. Yes, there can be some loss of functionality, like the dishwasher stopping mid wash on one occasion. But we've learned that we can get by pretty well." 

Function following form 

Everything Aro Hā built to help it live off the land also had to give the impression of a luxury experience for guests, and the guests do notice. Damian gives an introductory talk to the 40-50 guests he hosts each month. HIs description of the investment made in renewable energy turns heads. 

"The talk often goes over time and there are heaps of questions. Guests are impressed with what we've built here and Aro Hā's ability to function fossil fuel free. They understand why our human family needs to move toward renewable energy sources." 

Damian says he's thrilled with the performance of the solar system at Aro Hā in year one. "Obviously results have exceeded our expectations. I have to say, though, a a business manager, the budget savings plays a part as well. As years go by, we'll be in an ideal position to keep our operational costs low and put more money and time into guest wellness. That's why we got into this business in the first place."