We’re calling for Unison’s solar tax to be scrapped

Last month Unison Energy, in the Hawke’s Bay, said customers adding solar panels to their homes would be charged an extra fee for their grid connection.

 At the time we, and other like-minded organisations, said that was plain wrong. Now we’re saying it’s unlawful and a clear abuse of monopoly power.

To back this up we’ve lodged a complaint with the Electricity Authority (EA) saying Unison’s action unlawfully penalises homeowners with solar and will dissuade others from embracing this clean technology. At a time when countries around the world have recognised the urgency of shifting to renewable energy in the fight against climate change, Unison is taxing it's customers for taking action.

In the US and Australia, regulators are recommending solar because of the value it brings to the grid and consumers. In California it has been estimated that rooftop solar would deliver net societal benefits of more than US$1.4bn annually – for solar and non-solar customers alike. These societal benefits include improved flexibility in grid planning and reliability which are some of the key reasons why Vector, the nation’s largest lines company supports and encourages solar.

Unison, on the other hand, appears to be doing its utmost to protect profits ($27.5 million in 2015) and is trying to justify its solar tax by saying its non-solar customers will otherwise be subsiding solar customers who, it claims, are not paying their fair share of the costs of running the grid.

That’s a smoke and mirrors argument. Solar users have made an investment/commitment in solar -  there are no subsidies (and we’re not seeking them). Those solar users are connected to the grid so they still pay fixed lines charges (the fee retailers charge for grid maintenance) and they still pay for the power they use.  Unison’s answer to this socially conscious group of consumers, is to charge them a different and higher rate - up to 20% more.

If you’re having trouble following that logic, so are we. Solar users aren’t the only consumers spending less on power these days. For example people who install heat pumps, insulate their homes, upgrade their curtains, their appliances or light bulbs are all taking proactive steps to reduce their power bills but they’re not being charged an extra fee for being low power users. Obviously the same should go for solar users in the Hawke’s Bay, Tauranga and Taupo regions who have been unfairly singled out by Unison.

We're asking the EA to rule against Unison before other lines companies attempt to follow its example.

Globally the electricity sector is embracing solar due to the benefits it offers to its clients, the grid and the environment. However, in New Zealand, where only 0.5% of homes have solar panels, our electricity industry appears to be focused on using monopolistic power to block alternative energy uptake for as long as possible.  

Why are they seeking to delay the inevitable? solarcity and Panasonic are already changing the solar industry in New Zealand with the increase in solar uptake likely to increase exponentially. That’s because solar energy is now affordable through our solarZero energy service allowing homeowners to buy solar power without the cost of buying the panels.

The industry is in denial and is not ready to diversify. It’s also concerned  that solar will be used to power the electric car market - a market it no doubt sees as its golden ticket. Additionally, with the introduction of batteries and our solarZero+ service, homeowners can now buy grid power when rates are cheap and store it for use when rates are high. All of which the industry has been told about by the MBIE’s Smart Grid Forum. Consumers can even make a premium on their solar energy when they supply it to the grid on a demand response basis (income that the general public was previously locked out of).

At a time when we have real renewable energy solutions, and a global imperative to stop the use of all fossil fuels, it’s disappointing our industry is not embracing solar and battery technology as a natural compliment to hydro power which will help NZ move towards a target of 100% renewable electricity. Instead the industry has made the decision to keep Huntly’s coal burning power plant open and is attempting to introduce a tax on solar by stealth.

In Unison’s 2015 Annual Report the company said it was “seeking to embrace the challenge of transitioning to a world where our customers have much greater options to meet their energy needs”. If Unison is really serious about that, it should scrap its solar tax now.