Construction has started north of Kaitaia on New Zealand's biggest solar power station with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern turning the first sod this morning.
The $30 million power station will have 32,000 panels spread over 12 hectares at Pukenui, on the Aupōuri Peninsula, and at peak output will generate 16 megawatts — enough to power about 3000 homes.
That's eight times the output of New Zealand's current biggest solar farm in Marlborough.
The Pukenui solar farm is expected to start supplying power by the end of the year.
The company behind the venture, Far North Solar Farms, is owned by a Melbourne-based company and Richard Homewood of Muriwai Beach.
It will be the biggest solar farm in the country but won't hold that crown for long — several large-scale solar projects are planned in Northland, including a power station on the outskirts of Kaitaia with 20ha of panels and an ever bigger solar farm with a 30ha panel area near Dargaville.
Homewood said the company planned to build 1 gigawatt, or 1000 megawatts, of solar power generation in the next five to eight years.
The company would spend millions of dollars in the Pukenui area during construction and maintenance would create the equivalent of five full-time jobs.
The solar farm would improve local power reliability and help reduce New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions, Homewood said.
"Using solar power during the day means there's more hydro-generated power left in the grid for use during the evening and in winter when less sun is available."
Today's official launch was hosted by Te Rūnanga o Te Aupōuri. The iwi, which owns the land surrounding the Lamb Rd site, is in talks with the company about a possible expansion of the solar farm.
According to resource consent documents, solar panels would cover 12ha of the 15ha farm. The land would be leased and limited sheep grazing will continue to keep the grass down.
Three container-sized converter units would collect the power and convert it to grid electricity.
The solar farm would be connected to an existing Top Energy substation on Lamb Rd by an underground cable.
The biggest solar power project planned in Northland — if not in New Zealand — is by Kiwi company Lodestone Energy.
If approved, it will be built northwest of Dargaville with more than 125,000 panels totalling 30ha on 170ha of farmland.
The motorised panels will track the sun. Organic farming can continue underneath the panels, which will be spaced well apart and raised on 2m-high posts.
Lodestone hopes the Dargaville farm will start supplying power by summer 2023-24 but has yet to apply for consent.
Lodestone's other Northland project, on the outskirts of Kaitaia, will have 20ha of panels on 100ha of farmland and should start producing power late next year.
The Pukenui venture joins a wave of renewable energy projects completed or announced in Northland this year.
It is hoped they will transform the region from a power importer — vulnerable to power outages and price hikes — to a net power exporter, thanks to a combination of geothermal resources, wind and high sunshine hours.
An expansion of Top Energy's Ngāwhā geothermal power plant is due to officially open next week.
The new plant, just east of Kaikohe, is already producing 32MW of power. Unlike solar power stations, Ngāwhā produces power day and night.
Last month the Advocate revealed Tilt Renewables planned to build a $150 million wind farm at Omamari, about 10km north of Dargaville. That could generate enough power for 25,000 homes.
Far North Solar Farms originally wanted to call its Pukenui venture Ardern Solar Farm but that was rejected because it would breach Cabinet rules about political endorsements.