A massive community-owned solar energy park capable of powering 300 homes is proposed to be built in Tauranga.
The $6 million project covering three hectares was being promoted by Australian-based company Energy Democracy, chaired by former Tauranga resident Shelley Major.
Thousands of solar panels generating 1.5 megawatts would charge a battery the size of a shipping container, with the power released into the national grid when the price was right.
A key to the feasibility of the solar park was finding cheap land. Energy Democracy put its case to the city council this week in the hope the council had land unsuited to any other kind of development.
''If we find the land, it could be set up in six months.''
Tauranga was the second New Zealand council to be approached by Major, with Carterton District Council meeting next month to consider options to lease land to Energy Democracy.
The Martinborough resident who lived 16 years in Tauranga said she loved the city and its progressive outlook. She was a board member of Priority One.
The solar park would be owned by a community co-operative consisting of up to 600 members investing a minimum of $10,000 each.
''Members would own the generating assets and battery storage, with Energy Democracy building and managing the park.''
Major said the social enterprise would pay taxes but returned surpluses rather than profits to shareholders.
The stored power would be sold into New Zealand's wholesale energy market, with the timing of the sales depending on the constantly changing wholesale price. Returns would be maximised by selling when prices were higher and recharging the battery when prices were lower.
Members of the co-operative would still draw their power from the national grid and pay retail prices, but their share of the surpluses from the solar park would, in effect, offset their power bills.
Energy Democracy Ltd wanted to set up a network of co-operatives throughout New Zealand with the Tauranga-based co-operative consisting of members drawn from the Bay of Plenty. Members would also receive energy advice and best deals on products like energy efficient appliances.
Major stressed the company was in its early stages of development, with no co-operatives yet established in New Zealand or Australia. ''It's all about community engagement. This is not a get-rich scheme - it's for the long term.''
The council's environment committee chairman, Steve Morris, said Energy Democracy was looking for land the council could not use, like an old landfill dump site.
He said councillors were interested enough to allow Energy Democracy to continue its conversation with staff. ''It's very early days.''
The associate professor of environmental management at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, Dr Ian McLean, said solar parks were ''definitely the direction we should be going'' because of the potential to help New Zealand achieve its target of 100 per cent renewable energy.
He said there were clearly green benefits, but were they enough to compensate the community for other green uses of abandoned land, like planting trees.
''The key thing is the green credentials.''
McLean said the environmental cost of producing silicon solar energy panels was relatively small. However, batteries were the ''limiting factor'' in the whole enterprise. There was an environmental cost to producing and disposing of batteries.
''It is a great idea but I think there are some interesting issues.''
Steps toward establishing a solar park in Tauranga
- Secure the land.
- Establish a governance structure for the cooperative.
- Sign off financial disclosure statements
- Offer shares to the public