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Country’s largest solar farm near Kaitāia surging ahead

Jul 03, 2023

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An aerial view of Lodestone’s 80ha solar farm taking shape on Gills Rd, near Kaitāia

On a quiet back road, not far from Kaitāia township, the country’s largest solar farm is taking shape.

It’s a project that has employed many Far North people, will put millions into the Northland economy and should start supplying power to the national grid in November.

Solar farm company Lodestone Energy is behind the scheme, which when fully finished, is expected to generate 55GWh a year, making it New Zealand’s biggest solar power station - but it won’t hold the title for long because of a raft of even bigger renewable power projects planned or already consented around the country. Lodestone is also building a solar farm near Dargaville.

But work on the solar farm, that has around 60ha of solar panels on 80ha on Gill Rd, about 3km northwest of Kaitāia, is progressing well and on track to deliver its first input of power to the national grid in November and be fully operational in December

The farm will generate 39 megawatts of electricity at peak output, enough for about 8000 homes.

That’s more than Top Energy’s 32MW geothermal power plant at Ngāwha, though that plant operates 24 hours a day and not just when the sun shines.

Lodestone is working with Infratec and New Energy with big input from Te Rarawa, and Lodestone GM of Construction Jake Ighile said the collaboration had worked well in developing the latest solar technology at the site.

The 60,000 solar panels are the latest technology for the sector. They are double panels on a single access tracking system and can tilt to follow the sun during the day to maximise the amount of energy captured. The panels collect solar power from above and below at the same time, even getting the sunlight reflected from the ground.

And while the panels cover a huge area, they are raised two metres above the ground so that sheep can graze and Ighile said some crops could also be grown under the panels, to give full use of the land.

“This will be a major asset for the Far North and New Zealand as a whole,” he said.

Ighile said one of the most positive things about the project was the good relationships with local people, groups and organisations, with the majority of staff on the site from the Far North, while Te Rarawa played a major part in the development too.

Te Rarawa was also growing and planting around 40,000 trees at the site.

“That was really important to us, getting local people involved in the project as much as possible. It’s now part of them too and they are right behind the project and what it will deliver.”

Ighile said renewable energy was the way of the future in New Zealand and round the globe, and the Gill Rd solar farm would set the standard going forward.

He said the Gill Rd solar farm, and others the company was building, would give Kiwis an alternative power option and play a key role in meeting the country’s zero carbon goals.

The Gill Rd location was chosen for its “ideal combination” of sunlight hours, ease of connecting to the existing power network and ability to achieve a low-impact design.

According to Niwa figures, Kaitāia gets more than 2000 hours of sunshine a year - more than other areas of Northland apart from the Aupouri Peninsula, but less than East Cape, Nelson or Blenheim.

Scott Walls, New Energy managing director, said his company was keen to get involved in the project once they were contacted by Lodestone in April last year.

“I was just one telephone call from Jake talking about what they wanted to do here and we re really excited to be involved and help deliver this amazing facility.

“It’s the first with this solar technology.”

■ Lodestone Energy has commenced the next phase of its capital raising programme via a $250 million debt facility from ANZ Bank New Zealand Ltd.

Both parties have agreed to terms on a conditional debt facility to support the construction of new solar farms beyond the five that Lodestone has already announced.

The next phase will see ANZ and Lodestone working together on detailed due diligence to finalise credit approval for the fully engineered sites.

Gary Holden, managing director of Lodestone, said the partnership builds on the company’s existing banking relationships, is an important milestone and cements Lodestone’s position as the national leader in solar energy generation.

“We’re already well under way with our first programme of work, with construction in progress at Kaitāia and Edgecumbe, as well as early work on sites in Waiotahe, Whitianga and Dargaville.”

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