A PROPOSAL to turn Te Awanga and Clifton into New Zealand's first solar-power settlement will be heard by Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule tomorrow from the directors of Goldpower Solar Hawke's Bay.
Director Sebastian Nilsson said with Hawke's Bay Farmyard Zoo, the Haumoana Four Square and Clifton Cricket club installing solar panels "we are well on our way to becoming the eco-village", he said.
"It's not a world first. It has been done with entire cities in China, Europe and the United States.
"A lot of people are moving towards solar purely because it makes it more affordable - systems are guaranteed for 25 years and prices are coming down."
He said 99 per cent of people on social media discussions were supportive of the concept and he hoped it would become a community-owned resource.
The resource would be based primarily on one large solar installation on nearby farmland where the landowner was sympathetic to the vision.
While solar generation is well developed and proven, storage required to cope with winter peaks is not.
"We are researching a number of different battery options at the moment. We want to be at the forefront of battery technology - Te Awanga should set an example.
"Hawke's Bay has to really step up. We are the ones to do it and we are creating the opportunity within a number of partners.
"This is very much in an exploratory phase. We would like all opinions and feedback - all the pros and cons.
"We would like the community to decide together if it is the right thing to do - do we want to reduce our carbon footprint, have more money in our pocket and not get taxed every year by power companies increasing their prices?
"Prices are still going up - can we afford to not look at this?
"I like to think there would be more money for the region and more money for its people.
"We need to start stepping up. If we have the opportunity to do it then let's have a go."
He said because demand for solar systems was strong because it was self-funding through lower power bills.
"With rising power prices people are saying, can we afford to not look at it?"
Te Awanga was a natural choice for an off-grid community because it was "at the end of the line," as was Hawke's Bay.
Hawke's Bay does have power generation: three hydro dams at Lake Waikaremoana, two small run-of-river generators inland from Lake Tutira and a diesel-powered station in Whirinaki that can be fired up in 20 minutes to feed the national grid during a spike in demand.
The Green Party Napier secretary Paul Bailey said the Te Awanga initiative was inspirational.
"They have grabbed it by both hands and having a go," he said.
"The new economy won't come from a whole lot of corporate businesses. It is going to be these new guys coming in who are going to change things."
He said Unison's recent increase in line charges for consumer-generated solar power was a mistake.
"At the end of the day they are going to have to change their business model to take account of new technologies coming on board - their approach is a short-sighted one.
"The guys in Te Awanga won't even need Unison any more, and that is a challenge for Unison. If they get too many people grumpy they'll lose their customer base."
Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule said solar energy was "the way of the future".
There was currently an oversupply of electricity in New Zealand "but as New Zealand continues to grow we have a limited means of increasing it".
Overseas coal-based regimes generating electricity would cease and solar generation would become more cost-competitive and mainstream.
Solar energy was part of the council's sustainability ethos and it could support it through initiatives such as education and lower building consent fees.
"In a way we have done that with solid fuel heaters as part of the change from fireplaces to wood burners. We have introduced a very modest but consistent fees regime. The same thing could be done with solar."
He said the solar model of ubiquitous electricity generation, with houses generating their own power, challenged the current business model of lines companies so Unison was having to realign how they charge.
"I think that will sort itself out in the next 10 years and I think their move is the first in that space."
Unison has just 500 solar customers across its lines network in Hawke's Bay, Rotorua and Taupo, out of more than 110,000 customers, but the move to solar is increasing from the current 20 applications to switch a month.
John Newland is chairman of the Hawke's Bay Power Consumers Trust that holds Unison's shares on behalf of its owners, the electricity account holders of Napier and Hastings. He said the Trust was aware Unison was looking at how it could shift charges to ensure equity, so the increased line charge for those generating solar electricity was no surprise.
"We knew there was going to have to be some way of financing the continuing development of the line for a range of users," he said.
"This is going to happen around the country."
He said the Te Awanga proposal to go off-grid was not unique in New Zealand.
"Some individuals do it by necessity in places like Coromandel because it is relatively expensive to get a lines infrastructure to where they are living.
"Solar power is a reality of what is going to happen but the lines company has to provide an infrastructure in the meantime that will service the whole of the community. That is the issue at the moment, but these things evolve.
"The important thing is to have the discussions and the company to look at the options. It is not a large number of people at this stage - the company's priority was to get some sort of process in place so that when people decide what they are going to do they understand the full implications.
"This is going to happen around the country."