North Island to get five new solar farms worth $300 million

A new company that wants to decarbonise New Zealand’s energy sector is investing $300 million into a solar farm big enough to power a city the size of Hamilton.

A concept image of one of the planned solar power stations. Source: Supplied.

Lodestone Energy, the country's largest solar energy company, plans to build five solar farms across the upper North Island by 2022.

The plan involves 500,000 solar panels over 500 hectares of land which will provide solar energy to Dargaville, Kaitāia, Whakatāne, Edgecumbe and Whitianga.

Lodestone Energy managing director Gary Holden says the move is a step in the right direction for renewable energy.

“These farms are a game changer for the electricity market and will increase New Zealand’s current solar generation eightfold. The first phase of development will see more than half a million solar panels built over 500 hectares of land.

“Together, the five solar farms will act as one giant generation plant, using the power of the sun to inject sustainable renewable power into our electricity grid during the daytime and helping reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Solar costs have fallen sharply in recent years and we are now at the point where grid-scale solar power, if well-located, is the most economic form of new electricity generation.

"Also, because it delivers power during the daytime period, it has the highest value to the market,” Holden said.

Combined, the five farms will generate approximately 400 GWh of clean renewable energy, enough to power 55,000 homes or the equivalent of more than 150,000 electric vehicles.

The company, which is privately funded, has attracted the financial backing from some of New Zealand’s most well-known investors and entrepreneurs.

“Solar energy needs to play an increasingly important role in delivering New Zealand’s renewable electricity. This is how we’ll meet our future energy needs, as well as complement the country’s hydro, geothermal and wind resources to help achieve the Government’s goal of 100 per cent renewable generation by 2030,” says Holden.

Each of the solar farms will contain between 70,000 and 170,000 solar panels and will make use of world-leading technology to maximise generation. The panels will move to track the sun across the sky and electricity will be produced from both sides of the panel, capturing light from both the sky and reflected from the ground.

While the farms are designed to meet morning and late afternoon peaks in electricity demand, rapid developments in battery technology mean that in the near future the farms should be able to store electricity generated during the day for distribution in the evening peak.

“We have selected each site so that it is located in the country’s sunbelt – between the 34th and 39th parallel – placing them at the equivalent latitude of the Mediterranean and Southern California, where solar generation is common,” Holden said.

The Kaitāia site will be consented first. This farm has received strong support from tangata whenua, land-owners and other local stakeholders. Construction is scheduled to start by late 2021.

“We expect the Kaitāia farm will be producing electricity in summer 2022, with construction of the four other farms following soon after. All farms are expected to be operational by the summer of 2023/24. Solar plants can be constructed very quickly and at a lower cost, compared to wind and geothermal generation plants.

"They are also environmentally friendly and use no water, make little noise, create no pollution and release zero emissions.” Holden said. 

He says Lodestone’s solar farms are more than just a generation plant.

"Our plans have been carefully developed so we can use the land not only for electrical generation, but for agriculture and horticulture activities.

“We’ll do this by placing the panels high enough, and spaced sufficiently, to allow farming to continue underneath. This arrangement will mean about 85 per cent of agricultural production can continue after the panels are installed."