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Future Looks Bright For Solar Industry As Hodgson Hints At Regulation  Chris Mole - Associate Editor

15th September 2004

Solar energy looks set to come out of the shadows, opening up huge opportunities for NZ companies making or importing solar systems.

Energy Minister Pete Hodgson has predicted solar panels will be compulsory in all new homes within 3 years. Hodgson says such regulations are not on his immediate agenda but he believes they’re just around the corner, along with mandatory double-glazing in colder parts of the country, as part of the Govt’s energy-saving strategy. About 25,000 new homes are built annually in NZ, of which fewer than 10% were fitted with solar panels last year.

This means a potential 10-fold increase in the number of solar systems fitted annually – a prospect to warm the hearts of those in the industry who have been struggling for years to get recognition for the technology.

Nick Williamson, General Manager of Thermocell, the South Island’s largest manufacturer of solar water heating systems, sees Hodgson’s comments as “the biggest endorsement for solar water heating I’ve heard in 20 years.” Williamson says the solar industry already has an “action plan” to grow the number of solar panels fitted annually to 10,000 within 5 years. “So 25,000 is not such a huge stretch.”

He adds the potential number of solar systems which could be fitted each year in NZ is actually around 65,000, when you include the number of electric hot water cylinders replaced annually.

Thermocell is one of 4 major manufacturers of solar systems in NZ who supply about 30% of the market. The other 70% are imported.

Williamson says the Solar Industries Association, formed about 10 years ago to try to bring consistent standards to the industry and “keep the cowboys out,” has been talking with the Govt for some time about the potential of solar energy.

He believes there are still a few loose ends to tie up in terms of quality standards before the Govt can make solar systems mandatory. One of the biggest challenges will be to train enough plumbers in the skills required to install solar systems – but the industry is already working with tertiary institutions to “get them up to speed.”

Williamson’s father, Arthur Williamson, a pioneer in the solar industry, did a study before the Clyde dam was built, showing it would be cheaper for the Govt to put solar panels on every roof in NZ than to build the dam – and the electricity output would have been roughly the same.

EECA Chief Executive Heather Staley says solar water heating has huge potential for energy savings for households and businesses but how much this is realised depends on whether NZers are willing to embrace the technology.

“If every household in NZ had solar water heating it would reduce demand for electricity annually by more than the amount of electricity used by Christchurch City.” Staley says just over 22,000 homes in NZ now have solar heating.

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