Harmony Energy New Zealand has gained a green light from the Environmental Protection Authority to build a 147-megawatt solar farm in Waikato.
Last week's EPA approval allows the firm to go ahead with the Tauhei solar farm near Te Aroha. Harmony plans to install nearly 330,000 panels - enough to power 30,000 homes at peak times.
Harmony director Pete Grogan says Tauhei the electricity will be directly fed into the national grid for use by homes and businesses.
Mr Grogan is a New Zealander who has been part of the United Kingdom-based renewable energy company’s team as commercial director. He has returned home to support the net zero emissions goals of Aotearoa-New Zealand.
"I am committed to bringing the very best of what I have learned abroad back to New Zealand."
He says the EPA's Expert Consenting Panel commented that they have seldom seen a project that delivers such significant benefits with comparatively few adverse effects.
"The panel commended Harmony for the care it has taken in conceptualising the proposal for Tauhei."
He says that many international firms are currently scoping sites around the country and expects the EPA and local authorities will be asked to decide on dozens of applications in the coming months.
"In fact, far more solar farms will be proposed than New Zealand actually needs."
Harmony ensured its EPA proposal was very well thought out to help raise the standard of future applications to the authority, he says.
"As a country, we should only accept projects which are sensitively located, respect cultural heritage and freely offer significant gains for native fauna and flora."
"All project proposals should therefore be closely scrutinised on the basis of location, cultural heritage and ecological enhancement. Tauhei intentionally sets a high bar for consenting, and I hope all project developers will rise to the challenge."
Harmony Energy builds, owns and operates wind, solar and battery energy storage throughout the UK. It was founded to own and operate onshore wind assets in 2010, building 15 wind power sites in five years. It began developing battery storage projects in 2016. It has built 200 MW of standalone solar farms and 500 MW of solar co-located with batteries in the UK.
Mr Grogan says work will begin on building the Tauhei solar farm in 2024. Generation will begin in 2025. He says Harmony has a pipeline of 500 MW of New Zealand solar projects in addition to Tauhei.
"Renewable energy is critical to mitigate the negative impact of climate change and help support New Zealand's net zero ambitions," Mr Grogan says.
"Our transition to net-zero is vitally important, however, well thought-through solar farms can offer so much more than just clean energy."
Mr Grogan says one advantage of solar power is that it can allow energy generation alongside continued farming production, "as will happen at Tauhei".
The site is on an existing dairy farm in Te Aroha. The land will remain in the ownership of Tauhei Farms Limited, with livestock grazing continuing with sheep rather than the current dairy herd.
The panel array separation and height above ground will allow for continued pasture growth while providing shade and shelter for the sheep.
Cultural And Environmental Ethos
Mr Grogan says it was also important for Harmony to engage early with iwi and Harmony has been working with Ngaati Whanaunga, Ngāti Tumutumu Iwi Trust and Ngāti Hauā Iwi Trust. Mr Grogan says Harmony wanted to "understand what is important to them and that our proposed ecological restoration is consistent with their aspirations".
"We have placed cultural heritage at the heart of the design. That includes visual integration into the landscape, as well as improving water quality, biodiversity and ecology."
Harmony's plan includes the ecological restoration of a 6.9-hectare wetland area. This will incorporate boardwalks allowing scheduled educational visits from school students and community groups to learn about solar energy and biodiversity.
The site will retain the roosting trees for pekapeka-tou-roa - the long-tailed bat. This species is considered 'nationally critical' and requires protection.
The company is also committing to extensive riparian planting. It plans to plant a network of indigenous species along biodiversity corridors to enable the migration of local fauna species, including birds, skinks, geckos and insects, through the site. The planting will also screen solar panels from view.
"We will deliver an exceptional project that the Waikato and Aotearoa can be proud of."