Solar tax to be taken to hearing

A complaint that lines company Unison Networks breached the electricity industry code when it introduced a solar tax last year has won the right to a full hearing after it was earlier rejected by New Zealand’s electricity watchdog.

The Electricity Rulings Panel, which will review the complaint made by New Zealand’s leading solar energy services company, solarcity, to the Electricity Authority, says the issues around Unison’s tariff need to be “fully tested.”

“For months, we have been fighting for our right to challenge the legality of Unison’s tax which wrongfully disadvantages solar users,” says solarcity CEO Andrew Booth. “It's only fair that this dispute is heard by an independent body, something Unison has done its best to prevent."

Last year Unison said electricity customers in Hawke’s Bay, Rotorua and Taupo areas that installed rooftop solar after April 1, 2016 would be charged an extra fee for their lines connection. It plans to extend that tax to all solar power users in its region from April 1, 2019 (1).

“Unison is discriminating against its smartest, most energy aware customers and is charging up to an extra $239 per year without providing any extra services. That effectively makes it a tax on solar,” said Booth.

Unison challenged Greenpeace for using the word “tax” to describe the extra fee in its advertising campaign to have it scrapped. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled there were no grounds to proceed, saying the word “tax”was considered appropriate by some because the charges were compulsory and were a demand on people’s resources (2).

Three separate complaints about Unison’s solar tax were lodged with the Electricity Authority. It ruled that Unison had not breached the Electricity Industry Participation Code (3). solarcity challenged this decision by taking it to the Electricity Rulings Panel, an independent appeals authority. 

solarcity had insisted on a hearing, including citing the 13th Century Magna Carta saying justice denied was justice delayed. In a written decision the panel rejected Unison’s request to disallow a hearing.

“We consider that a hearing is an opportunity for the issues to be fully tested by allowing the tribunal to observe the demeanour of witnesses, and to ask questions,” said Booth.

A date for the Electricity Rulings Panel hearing has yet to be set.

Booth says it is likely Unison’s solar tax will be consigned to history as a bad idea.

“These kinds of approaches by monopolies to try and stop solar won’t work. Similar moves in Spain, Sweden and South Australia have all failed (4). Here in New Zealand Vector, Orion, Network Tasman and Powerco have told us they have no intention of introducing a solar tax.

With climate change being the major threat facing the world it’s vital all countries do everything possible to encourage the shift to clean energy.”

Vector CEO, Simon Mackenzie, has long held the view that solar is absolutely part of New Zealand's clean energy future and it is important to not penalise particular technologies.

With wide scale reform of electricity pricing being called for by regulators it is vital the customer is at the centre of how pricing could change.  In addition, Vector has just commenced customer engagement and trials as part of this and will not be seeking to target solar prosumers who are an exciting addition to a new energy future.

At the end of last year Greenpeace delivered a petition signed by 45,000 Kiwis calling on the Electricity Authority to support solar energy and prohibit electricity providers from penalising solar users (5).