Solar power not the answer to cutting emissions in New Zealand

EDITORIAL

News that solar power does little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for New Zealand, and that widespread uptake of solar photovoltaics would actually be expected to moderately increase emissions, will come as a shock to the many people who thought they were helping the environment by installing solar panels on their roofs. It should also end the common suggestion that Gisborne and the East Coast aim to be the solar capital of New Zealand.

Energy industry consultants Concept released a report with these findings this week, saying New Zealand should concentrate on encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles as a far better way to cut our emissions.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright appeared on National Radio yesterday saying the report confirmed work she had done.

“I think it’s a very important message, which is why I have actually come out and said please take heed of this report.”

Solar panels were really good at turning sunlight into electricity in summer, but quite poor at doing so in winter, said Dr Wright. New Zealand’s peak electricity usage was in winter, which was when gas and coal-fired power was needed to supplement the 80 percent of electricity supplied by hydropower and geothermal.

“It’s a seasonal mismatch.”

In response to a listener describing their personal power savings from solar PV, over winter too and also used to charge an electric vehicle, Dr Wright said this was a “very thorough study modelling the electricity network for the entire country, so it’s not looking at an individual situation — it’s imagining if we were going to promote one or the other, what should we do if we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is very clear — it should be electric vehicles, and the solar panels on the whole do little, in fact they can even make it worse.”

Battery technology being developed would save electricity from day for the night, but not from summer to winter, she said.

“We have to do the numbers, and keep doing the numbers because technology changes.”

News that solar power does little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for New Zealand, and that widespread uptake of solar photovoltaics would actually be expected to moderately increase emissions, will come as a shock to the many people who thought they were helping the environment by installing solar panels on their roofs. It should also end the common suggestion that Gisborne and the East Coast aim to be the solar capital of New Zealand.

Energy industry consultants Concept released a report with these findings this week, saying New Zealand should concentrate on encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles as a far better way to cut our emissions.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright appeared on National Radio yesterday saying the report confirmed work she had done.

“I think it’s a very important message, which is why I have actually come out and said please take heed of this report.”

Solar panels were really good at turning sunlight into electricity in summer, but quite poor at doing so in winter, said Dr Wright. New Zealand’s peak electricity usage was in winter, which was when gas and coal-fired power was needed to supplement the 80 percent of electricity supplied by hydropower and geothermal.

“It’s a seasonal mismatch.”

In response to a listener describing their personal power savings from solar PV, over winter too and also used to charge an electric vehicle, Dr Wright said this was a “very thorough study modelling the electricity network for the entire country, so it’s not looking at an individual situation — it’s imagining if we were going to promote one or the other, what should we do if we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is very clear — it should be electric vehicles, and the solar panels on the whole do little, in fact they can even make it worse.”

Battery technology being developed would save electricity from day for the night, but not from summer to winter, she said.

“We have to do the numbers, and keep doing the numbers because technology changes.”

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David Nicholls - 3 years ago
I wonder if the problem with cloud cover in winter could be solved by putting solar farms on the mountains, above the clouds, or at least above most of them. All reports say solar electricals work better in cold temperatures too, obviously doing anything in the brutal environment of the mountains would be a challenge to say the least.

Manu Caddie - 3 years ago
I'm not sure this can be called 'news' when it's a report paid for by an industry group with an interest in minimising solar uptake. The report was commissioned and sponsored by a number of incumbent energy generator/retailers, a distribution company, and a government agency, many of whom have stepped up the anti-solar rhetoric of late as the threat of reduced revenue looms. Electric Vehicles consume electricity and increase demand - good for electricity generators.
Solar PV produces 100% clean energy - bad for electricity generators if they don't own it.
The Sustainable Electricity Association of NZ (SEANZ) notes that emissions from transport are a big issue for New Zealand which we need to tackle and EVs can contribute significantly to this - no question. But SEANZ also points out that to state that solar will cause an increase in emissions is reflective of the myopic view that fails to understand the inevitable trajectory of the electricity market - one that will lower emissions in the electricity sector AND the transport sector.
In response to the report, SEANZ said "The flawed assumption upon which this report is based is one which many in the industry make, that 'large-scale renewables represent the least-cost option for future electricity supply in New Zealand'. The fast-growing number of people installing solar around the country will testify to the fact that investing in solar on their rooftop is the least-cost option for future electricity supply. Solar is already cheaper than the cost of delivered electricity (the cost of producing, transporting, distributing and delivering electricity to your home). Solar PV is more attainable for the typical householders, who can significantly reduce their power bills with an investment that is less than 1/4 the cost of a small EV in NZ, and enjoy the benefit for at least 25 years. Once we accept that this fact will continue to drive the uptake of solar, we see that other assumptions made in this report to discredit Solar PV are equally flawed."
The assertion that because 80% of our electricity is already from renewable sources, that more clean technology will encourage fossil fuel generation and result in greater CO2 emissions is also a flawed argument. Increased household efficiency combined with solar will lower demand.
The PCE has got it wrong on this one. We don't have to make the choice of shifting to only one or the other, we need both PV and EV.

Manu Caddie - 3 years ago
What I like about the report is the way it has stimulated the long overdue discussion on the urgent need to switch our national transport fleet to electric vehicles. It's exciting to see EV charging stations being installed across the country, though Tairawhiti seems to have been left out of the rollout from the top main EV recharging retailers so far.
But I disagree that the report "should also end the common suggestion that Gisborne and the East Coast aim to be the solar capital of New Zealand".
While it is more about the political economy of privatised electricity generation and distribution than greenhouse gas emissions reduction, rurally isolated communities are being hammered by the profiteering of national generators and 'our own' lines company while PV costs continue to fall. Electricity consumption was 6 percent of our last power bill, the rest was supply-related charges. There remains a strong case for investing in distributed generation from solar (and micro-hydro) in this region.

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