New Zealand's biggest solar power station could be built near Kaitaia if plans by a Kiwi tech entrepreneur get the green light.
The power station, if built, would have 20ha of panels and produce 39 megawatts (MW) of electricity — enough for about 8000 homes and more than half the Far North's peak electricity demand.
That's 20 times the output of the biggest solar power plant currently operating in New Zealand.
Large-scale solar power stations are sometimes criticised for reducing land available for agriculture but in this case the panels, which tilt to track the sun, would be raised more than 2m off the ground to allow farming to continue underneath.
The rows of panels would also be spaced out to allow tractors and other farm machinery to pass between them.
New Zealand company Lodestone Energy applied for building and resource consent to the Far North District and Northland Regional councils late last year. A decision is believed to be imminent.
The application was non-notified because only immediate neighbours were deemed to be affected.
If the ''solar farm'' goes ahead it would be built on two adjoining farm blocks off Gill Rd, about 3km northwest of Kaitaia.
The site's total area is just under 100ha with a proposed panel area of 20.1ha. The land is mostly flat pasture.
The company behind the venture, Lodestone Energy Ltd, is owned by Gary Holden and Guy and Susan Haddleton of Auckland.
This is Lodestone's first project but its managers have developed renewable power plants in New Zealand, Australia and Canada since 1996.
According to consent documents, the Te Ahu Solar Project would be the largest in New Zealand to date.
It would also be a New Zealand first because Lodestone had partnered with S2 Group, an organic farming business, to optimise agricultural use of the land.
That would be achieved by allowing extra space between panel racks, placing the racks at a greater height and using fewer piles, leaving more room for machinery, livestock and arable land.
The location was chosen for its ''ideal combination'' of sunlight hours, ease of connecting to the existing power network, and the ability to achieve a low-impact design.
The solar farm would consist of 94,932 panels attached to 1172 motorised tracking bases, each 42m long and supported by two posts 2.4m high.
It would hook up to Top Energy's existing Kaitaia substation via a new 33kV line.
Between 40 and 80 jobs would be created during the year-long construction phase, the consent documents state.
The new geothermal power plant at Ngāwhā produces 32MW, less than the proposed solar farm's 39MW. Geothermal power, however, is produced 24/7, while the solar plant will hit peak output only when the sun is shining.
The solar farm at peak output and the old and new Ngāwhā power stations combined would produce 96MW, more than Karapiro Dam on the Waikato River and more than enough to turn the Far North into a power exporter.
The consent applicant, Lodestone development director Daniel Cunningham, said it was too early to give a timeline for the solar farm, but a full announcement about the project would be made in the near future.
Kaitaia Business Association chairwoman Andrea Panther welcomed the news, saying the town had often missed out on infrastructure projects in the past.
''It's really exciting that we could get another big development in the far Far North.''
Having another local source of power in the Far North, on top of Top Energy's geothermal plant and backup generators, would further reduce Kaitaia's dependence on electricity transported long distances via the national grid.
''It will help us become more resilient,'' Panther said.
Top Energy chief executive Russell Shaw said the solar farm would ''not at all'' affect the viability of his company's new geothermal power plant.
By 2050, as cars and industrial processes moved away from fossil fuels, New Zealand's electricity use was expected to double.
''So we'll need all sorts of energy. I think it's great.''
Currently New Zealand's biggest solar power plant is Wairau Valley Solar Farm in Marlborough with a capacity of just 2MW.
Several other big projects are in the pipeline, however.
In 2019 Refining NZ announced plans for a 26MW solar farm at Marsden Point oil refinery, while in February this year Far North Solar Farm applied for resource consent for a 16MW power plant on the sun-soaked Aupōuri Peninsula.
Lodestone Energy co-owner Guy Haddleton, of Takapuna Beach, is a tech entrepreneur who sold his US-based software company Adaytum for US$160 million in 2003.
In 2006 he co-founded the business planning software firm Anaplan. The company listed on the US stock market in 2018 and now has a market capitalisation of about NZ$11 billion.
Haddleton has also invested in the medical cannabis industry.
Gary Holden, a dual Canadian-New Zealand citizen, is the managing director of Lodestone Energy. He was previously the chief executive of retail power company Pulse Energy.
According to Niwa figures, Kaitaia gets more than 2000 hours of sunshine a year — more than other areas of Northland apart from the Aupōuri Peninsula, but less than East Cape, Nelson or Blenheim.
Kaitaia College has the largest solar power system of any school in New Zealand.