Eastland Network has launched a solar research trial to gather “real world data” as part of its planning for the future electricity needs of the Gisborne, East Coast and Wairoa regions.
Eastland Group chief executive, Matt Todd, says solar panels will be installed at up to 12 sites, including the roof at Eastland Network’s Carnarvon Street premises, in a trial designed to last between two and five years.
“The aim is to assess the technical and commercial impacts of new technologies on the distribution network, and to gain some real world data that can help local people to make informed decisions on emerging technology.”
He is concerned Tairawhiti residents are being sold solar installations on the basis of unrealistic assumptions around power price increases, network tariffs and maintenance costs.
“It’s exciting that solar will form part of the region’s energy supply, however our ingoing assumption is that solar is not yet economic for the majority of grid connected properties. We also know that the price of solar is dropping rapidly so solar may well be economic sooner rather than later.”
The trial will help Eastland Network understand the threats, opportunities and the economics of the technology, by gathering data about how people are likely to source and manage their electricity needs in the future. Mr Todd says he believes the future opportunity is for the company to have a closer relationship with customers who are producing their own electricity.
While the number of on-grid solar installations on the Eastland Network has doubled in the past six months to 114, he says that at around 0.4 MW, they are not yet having a major impact, but the company wants to be able to send the correct signals to consumers on the affordability of solar.
“We’re trying to understand two things. We need to know how solar – and later batteries – will impact the future operational and technical performance of the network itself, so that we can plan for asset maintenance and development. We also need to know how customers react throughout the trial, so that we can understand what kinds of services they might expect from us in the future.
“We believe we’re likely to see significant uptake of solar and then battery storage in New Zealand over the next 10 years. But right now, some of the claims being made by companies selling solar panels are pretty hard for us to accept… so this trial is about finding out the facts for ourselves.”
Anyone wishing to connect a solar system to the distribution network, must comply with the safety and technical standards described in Eastland Network’s connection standards.
Eastland Group’s investment in Flick Electric Co. is part of the company’s commitment to understanding the changing energy landscape. The Wellington-based company passes on all power costs without any mark-up and then charges a transparent fee to its customers.
As emerging energy technologies like solar and battery challenge current business models, Mr Todd says Eastland’s concern is that networks are constrained by regulated pricing in terms of the kinds of discussions about appropriate services and pricing it is able to have with customers.
“Our view is that regulation of electricity networks is unlikely to keep pace with rapidly expanding consumer choices.”
Mr Todd says he agrees with statements made earlier this month by Oxford University researchers Dr Malcolm McCulloch and Dr Rebecca Ford. Speaking at a Smart Grid Forum workshop on 4 July, the pair said the electricity industry needed to identify customers’ “unrecognised” energy needs and develop new business models as people move towards self-generated energy.
“That’s exactly what the aim of this trial is. We want to understand the potential impact of new technologies on the network, at the same time as we work on developing innovative customer solutions for the people who live in the Gisborne, Wairoa and East Coast region.”
The electricity distribution network is Eastland Group’s largest asset. It delivers electricity to more than 54,000 consumers and covers more than 10,000 square-kilometres across Gisborne, Wairoa and the East Coast. Since 1 April 2015, Eastland Network has also owned the region’s 110 kV assets, after purchasing them from Transpower. The company plans to spend about $15 million over the next five years on the assets, on top of about $1.5 million each year on operations.