The sun shone brightly on September 30 as Tanira Cooper of Ngā Hapū o Ōtaki led dignitaries and blessed New Zealand’s first community-based solar farm on Riverbank Road.
Named Rua Kūmara, the farm honours the site’s pre-European use of harvesting sweet potato from the land and sun. The project has been four years in the making and consists of 240 panels that will generate 107 kilowatts peak (kWp). Another 52 panel 23 kWp system has been installed at Ōtaki College.
Power will be bought at market rates by the college and the council’s wastewater treatment plant, which is right next door to the Riverbank Road solar project . Proceeds will go into a community investment fund overseen by Energise Ōtaki that will support local schools and energy projects.
Under the leadership of Leigh Ramsey of Energise Ōtaki, with $407,000 funding from Wellington Community Trust, the ambitious project was a collaborative effort that involved Kāpiti Coast District Council providing land at a peppercorn rate, and Infratec, which did the installation.
“Usually power profits go to shareholders out of town, whereas, if you can harness the sun, the money stays here and benefits the local community,” Leigh says. “Council is spending large amounts to power our wastewater treatment plant, so it makes no difference to them that we supply the energy.
“That’s how we can now create a community energy renewable fund that will disperse money for energy projects in our town.”
It’s expected that the Riverbank Road farm will generate a return of $35,000-$40,000 annually by selling electricity to the council. The smaller solar farm at Otaki College that now powers the school, is replacing some of the college’s current energy costs.
Additional income from the fund will support a range of energy projects and learning opportunities for the college.
“We’ll be able to give funding to the school for scientific projects, training in renewable energy, help advance their knowledge and create smarter children. College principal Andy Fraser calls it ‘scholarships from the sun’, which really says it all,” Leigh says. “I also acknowledge the support from the very beginning of our councillor, James Cootes. He saw our vision four years ago and never let go.”
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the expansive project showed how Ōtaki provided community resilience and education, and harnessing energy.
“This the first community-based solar project in New Zealand and it will act as a catalyst for future green initiatives,” the minister said.
As he ceremoniously turned the solar farm’s switch on, the handle came flying off. “That’s the power of the government,” he quipped.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw said he was pleased to see the project come to fruition.
“I’ve seen this come a long way from its concept a number of years ago. Ōtaki has a lot of skills from engineering and the passion to see this through. This has the opportunity to expand, and I hope we see these cropping up across the country.”
Te Tai Hauāuru MP Adrian Rurawhe and Jan Logie MP, were also at the opening, along with about 50 guests. The site has the potential to double in size to further increase energy production and community investment.