Electricity is a commodity we simply cannot do without. Unfortunately, it's also the biggest contributor, at around one-third of total emissions, to mankind's carbon footprint on the planet.

Of course most of those emissions come from coal- and oil-powered plants overseas; here in New Zealand we like to imagine we're cleaner and greener because most on-grid electricity comes from "renewables" - hydro, wind, and geothermal - though a "forgotten" percentage of total power is generated off-grid by industrial outfits burning fossil fuels.

And while our electricity-related emissions are minuscule in a global context, we can't ignore them. To save the world from the worst projected effects of climate change, we need to do our bit. Government is, slowly and reluctantly, facing up to this through promotion of electric vehicles, cycleways, better public transport and insulated houses.

Oddly, that doesn't translate into incentivised assistance for renewable generation - unlike flavour of the decade projects like irrigation schemes.


And it certainly doesn't apply to homeowners wishing to take advantage of improved technology for solar panels, and move toward electrical self-sufficiency.

Surely supporting such initiatives is an easy and relatively cheap way to show the world we care, especially since many countries now offer subsidies for exactly that: moving people off-grid to lessen the need for power plants and/or free up supply for more growth.

But, sadly, not only is solar unsupported, it's being actively penalised by, of all things, a publicly-owned lines company shamelessly backed by the industry's supposed watchdog, the Electricity Authority.

Yes, I'm talking Unison, the Hawke's Bay-based lines company. And no, I don't buy their rationale for slapping an extra charge on solar-powered homes: that it's to cover peak loading, which their network must be built to handle, and the inherent need for "extra" capacity to power solar homes at peak times, such as winter nights - when, they say, solar can't provide.

This ignores the fact that existing capacity is rarely stretched (demand has decreased) and improved storage options are increasingly allowing consumers, with a modicum of care, to have 24-hour power from solar regardless.

Unison talks about "reducing the subsidy" solar users enjoy, but that's pure PR spin. There is no subsidy, so there's no "reduction" - it's an entirely new additional charge.

The only "subsidy" is in the way Unison charges - by the kilowatt hour overall, instead of by on- or off-peak use. So everyone pays more for off-peak and less for peak power than they should, whether making use of solar or not.

Claiming solar generators must pay their "fair share" of the network costs regardless of whether they're using the lines at any given time also makes a nonsense of the principle of user pays. If you're not using something, why should you pay for it? When you do use it, you do pay - isn't that fair enough?


But even if Unison's arguments held water, what is a ratepayer-owned company doing penalising its customers for trying to minimise their "dirty" on-grid electricity use? Do they not understand the need to reduce emissions?

No, guess not; all they're really concerned about is how this self-sufficiency fad might impact on their (monopoly) profits.

Well, here's a message for Unison's owners, the HB Power Consumers' Trust: You are elected by the citizens of the district. You may need to run an efficient company, but you're also expected to put public interests foremost. Hiding behind a profit-motive to limit your voters' choice for moving at least partially off-grid to help themselves and the planet is not doing that.

Change this policy or you might expect another change come the elections - one that involves your seats.

- Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. All opinions expressed here are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.