Construction of a "mega" solar farm to supply low-income households with power is being touted as a solution to energy poverty in Hawke's Bay.
An Otago University study in 2017 found about one fifth of New Zealanders experience energy poverty – defined by spending 10 per cent or more of household income on energy.
Flaxmere is one of Hawke's Bay's poorest suburbs, and according to the NZ Index of Deprivation, is also one of the most deprived areas in the country.
To alleviate the energy situation for about 400 Flaxmere households, St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Hastings is exploring the possibility of building a solar farm with between 3500 and 4000 panels.
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It hopes to then sell those customers power at prices about 25 per cent below those offered by mainstream companies.
"Technically, the customers can be anywhere, but we've used Flaxmere as a concept where people understand there's a lot of low-income households and people in need," project manager Chris Lambourne said.
Data showed that people in Flaxmere, which is in the church's catchment area, were using 20 per cent less electricity than the average New Zealand home.
"People can't afford to heat their houses and as such they ... get sick. That affects their employment, and if you're unemployed, then it affects your ability to have a house, that was the picture we saw happening," Lambourne said.
The church would also purchase electricity from the wholesale market to service customers during non-sunlight hours.
It was close to finishing a feasibility study and had an engineer review of the project. The next step would be finding up to two hectares of land to build on.
The church aimed to raise the majority of the $2.5 million needed through the parish, local and central government, iwi, the community, and charities.
Reverend Jill McDonald said there was a "huge gap" between the rich and the poor in Hawke's Bay.
"Over the winter you talk about pensioners sitting in sleeping bags to keep warm because they didn't want to put their heater on because of the feared high cost."
A Hastings District Council spokeswoman said it has spoken with with the church about the project, and a meeting between the two was being held this week.
Unison relationship manager Danny Gough said no inquiry the company has received to date had moved beyond the business case feasibility stage.
"Unison supports renewable generation in any form whether remote, embedded in our network, or on a customer's roof top and we work with those generators to facilitate connection of their generation to the network."
As solar prices continued to decrease, Gough anticipated there would be more solar farms throughout New Zealand
A spokeswoman for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority said solar energy was likely to be an "increasing part" of New Zealand's future.
It was currently more expensive to generate solar, compared with large-scale renewables like wind and geothermal, but prices were falling, she said.
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