The term ‘solar farm’ may be about to take on a new meaning in New Zealand, with a proposal to fill 20.5 hectares of farmland with panels, and continue livestock grazing and arable growing underneath.
Lodestone Energy Ltd (LEL) has applied to the Far North District Council and Northland Regional Council to establish a 39.4 megawatt solar farm on two parcels of farmland about 3km west of Kaitaia. By rough calculation 39.4MW is sufficient electricity to power 8,000 homes.
The plan is to install nearly 95,000 modules (solar panels) spread across 1,172 trackers (bases) able to pitch the panels at two angles.
By comparison a solar farm established by Campbell McMath in Marlborough, and described last month by Stuff as the biggest in New Zealand, puts out 2.2MW and when complete will have 5500 panels.
The Northland application says LEL has partnered with S2 Group, a top New Zealand organic farmer, “to optimise agricultural use of the land with the solar farm”. The panel racks will be suitably spaced and at a height (maximum 4.2m) that will allow more room for tractor movement, as well as livestock and arable use.
The Te Ahu Solar project will be connected to Northland’s Top Energy Ltd’s Kaitaia substation via a new 33kV line.
LEL’s consent application to the councils was lodged last October by Daniel Cunningham, who was not available to speak to us by our deadline. However, the consent application lists positives of the project as including 40-80 jobs over the 12-month build, continued agricultural use of the land, and lowering of electricity prices in the region (solar has the added benefit of daytime production, which lowers prices during some of the most expensive hours of the day). The project also supports the government’s strategies of 100% renewable electricity generation by 2035, and a net zero carbon future by 2050.
Brendan Winitana, Chairman of the board of the Sustainable Energy Association New Zealand, said solar panel farms working in conjunction with farming operations haven’t been seen in New Zealand yet “but someone has to be the first, and Lodestone may just be it”. The model is common in the United States and Europe.
“[The LEL plan] is one of a number that have been proposed and are going through a bunch of processes, including the ridiculous RMA,” Mr Winitana said.
The focus is Northland because of the high cost of electricity there, typically 25-30 percent higher than prices south of Auckland.
“When you crunch the numbers over the long-term – and given the cost of solar technology has dropped dramatically in the last four or five years, and you can graze animals underneath the panels – it adds up,” Mr Winitana said.
“With solar farms in New Zealand, the major cost is not the cost of technology it’s the cost of land. So it makes logical sense to use existing farmland, and to maximise the ROI (return on investment) on that farmland by continuing grazing – which is why it’s a common trend abroad.”
Far North District Council is treating the LEL consent application as non-notified (no hearing needed) and Federated Farmers understand it may be close to being signed off.
Federated Farmers energy spokesperson Wayne Langford said it was encouraging to see innovative ideas coming through to help meet targets for climate change.
“It’s also great when these ideas are complimentary to the land they are being built on,” Wayne said.
“I’d also like to see more investment on existing infrastructure, such as dairy and woolsheds across the country. Investment on farm that get us further along on climate change targets and helps the agricultural industry is good for everyone.”