Solar panels in a cow paddock feed power to the grid from sunny Golden Bay
Golden Bay: Weekly Good News Report
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By Charlotte Squire
I’m standing in a cow paddock in Golden Bay gazing at twenty eight solar panels in permanent salute to the sun. It’s a hot autumn day and I’m provided with a fantastic example of the rays glaring bright on the surface of the panels. I’m told they supply their accompanying house and cottage with more than enough energy, so much in fact that one third of the energy is surplus to requirements and gets sent back to ‘the grid’.
But what exactly is ‘the grid’ and how does the power get transported from those translucent panels we’ve all seen on roof tops to the toaster? How much does it cost to set up a twenty eight solar panel that measures ten metres long by two and a half metres wide? And hang on a minute, I’ve heard that the amount of energy that goes into producing the actual solar panels can outweigh the environmental benefits of using solar power at all, is that true?
Enter Albie Burgers. A gently spoken, thoughtful kind of man, he’s the master-mind behind this new, rather large scale private solar panel set up. For years tales of his inventions have trickled my way via the ‘village grapevine’, and he and his wife Fill are currently sharing the good news about the success of this exploratory project with their community.
During the first phone call to Albie I asked him if I could come and take a look at his solar panels, I warned him that I knew very little about solar power and I’d be asking him some very basic questions. He said, with a smile in his voice, “good, that’ll bring me down to earth.”
We started with some basic power generation lingo.
Says Albie, one ‘unit’ equals one ‘kilowatt hour’ of energy. Most houses use an average of twenty kilowatt hours of energy per day. Their solar power set up is pumping out
thirty kilowatt hours of energy per day.
Ahhh. A surplus of power. I’m with the man so far!
So, next question. What happens to the extra ten kilowatt hours of energy? This is a rhetorical question, because I know it goes back to the grid. But how on earth does this work? I’ve often heard about feeding energy back to the grid, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s a really complicated thing to do. Or is it?
“We make a phone call,” says Albie.
He tells me the power company sent them a form and subsequently installed a power metre that measures backwards. It’s wired so that the panels will feed their house first, and then the surplus power will go, via Network Tasman, to Meridian Energy.
Meridian Energy pay ‘one for one’. So that’s 25c for every kilowatt hour of energy that Albie and Fill feed back to them. At last reading, over thirty six days they saved 796 kWh. For some this figure will mean nothing (I am included in this group), let’s put it in monetary terms, this equates to a saving of $199.
Considering this new project cost Albie and Fill $25,000 it will take a few years for it to pay for itself (twelve in fact). But, says Albie, that’s not the point.
Muses Albie on his website:
“This is all to do with Ethical Investment of our money. We could put $25,000 in the bank, where we would earn around 5% interest, but who knows what the bank will invest it in! (Arms? Coal-mining? Factories in China?…). A solar electricity generation facility, on the other hand, seems to be an environmentally positive scheme to put some of our money into.”
Now let’s address these environmental impact rumours. One of the key issues that Albie and Fill were aware of as they researched and designed their solar panel project was ‘environmental profit’. How long would it take until this project profited the planet, not just their bank balance?
So they did some calculations. They found that it would take them four and a half years to pay back the amount of electricity that went into producing and setting up the panels.
Then they tried to work out the carbon impact, which they said was far more difficult. Basically to work this out you need to consider all the factors that went into producing the panels, including the materials, the extraction, and the diesel. They settled upon a figure of around two years.
“It’s expensive, one of the most expensive ways to generate power. But it’s relatively ecologically benign. Some people would argue with that, and I’m happy with that. But
these panels don’t move around, they don’t break-down. Once they’ve paid back their impact, they begin to benefit the environment.”
Albie and Fill did this ‘by the books’. They had to in order to feed back to the grid, because to do so, they needed to comply with Network Tasman’s requirements. Network Tasman are the dudes that transport the power back to Meridian, who then buy the power off the Burgers family.
This involved applying for planning consent too. The local Tasman District Council weren’t sure quite what to make of this project.
“They’d never seen anything like this before. They told us it wasn’t a ‘building’ and it didn’t fall into the ‘Exempt Building Category’ either. They assured us that they tried very hard to fit it into a category.
They said ‘you’ve built it to building code standards, it’s not going to fall down. So our final determination is that you don’t need building consent, or exemption from building consent as long as you build it to an acceptable building standard’”.
And then they gave them their fee back.
“So we’re setting a precedent Fill,” said Albie to his wife.
I asked Albie if he had any advice for people in the ‘burbs who didn’t have cow paddocks to build stand alone structures on. He said, if you’re living in cities roofs are the more obvious place to hold solar panels.
“You can get together and place one big order for solar panels and an inverter for four or five houses, it’s cheaper then.”
Not a bad idea Albie …
Finally, I felt compelled to ask Albie what drove him, what inspired him to do this, to keep inventing these ecologically beneficial projects. He sat quietly for a while and then placed his hand on his wife Fill’s and said:
“She motivates me.”
Isn’t that the ultimate romantic ending? Green romance. It’s the way of the future.
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The (happy) end.