Solar energy means different things to different people: is it solar water heating, or is it the use of photovoltaic panels to generate electricity? Is the aim to reduce dependence on the national grid or remove involvement with it altogether?

The use of solar power to heat water for domestic and commercial use has been around for many years and a helpful New Zealand advocacy agency is the Solar Association of New Zealand, which provides considerable information.

A fully solar power supply has been, until recently, the preserve of the 'fringe' who aim to lead a totally sustainable, off-grid lifestyle. It has been an expensive option because of the cost involved in the photovoltaic panels themselves, the battery banks required for total off-grid operation, and the inverters (to convert the DC power generated to AC suitable for domestic use).

But over the last two or three years, the cost of photovoltaic panels and other solar energy components has dropped markedly, and more people are beginning to investigate solar energy as a way to reduce their power bills, rather than avoid the national grid completely. The Sustainable Electricity Association New Zealand (SEANZ) reports a 370% rise in solar power installations in the past two years, in response to declines in the cost of individual components and complete system packages, as well as the inexorable rise in conventional electricity prices. It is now possible to get a completely installed solar system starting at $6,500. A range of information is available from online sources including My Solar Quotes, indicating the extent of recent developments.

There are a number of groups in New Zealand now offering courses and training sessions to assist those interested in setting up solar power generation systems on a micro-scale. SEANZ offers comprehensive workshops on solar and other types of sustainable energy. EECA also provides information about the establishment and use of solar energy generating systems in New Zealand. Recent interest has been such that a new institute has opened in Kaiwaka to teach households, builders, and architects about solar energy and how it can work in New Zealand. The Renewable Energy School of New Zealand (RESONZ) held its first conference early this year, recognising the growing worldwide demand for training in this area and aiming to provide training to both national and international students. Its training centre is equipped with a solar grid-connected PV system; experimental kits to demonstrate the principles of renewable energy; training rigs for learning to install solar systems; computer simulation systems; and a demonstration area displaying a broad range of renewable technologies. Tutors at the new centre include engineers with backgrounds in energy efficiency and solar power and an architect with experience in sustainable design.

However, before leaping into the installation of a solar power system, it pays to examine all the factors, both economic and practical. One of the huge attractions of solar power is that it is technically possible to sell your excess energy, generated during the sunny parts of the day, to the national grid and then purchase it back as needed during times when solar generation is not possible (eg at night). However, while most energy companies do purchase solar power, the rates vary quite widely. Details are provided here. An article from 2012 outlining the likely purchase price paid for your surplus electricity is also worth digesting. A very recent and encouraging article in the National Business Review provides a good overview of the current viability of solar power systems and provides brief case studies of instances where solar power is being used effectively in New Zealand – see here

You may want to use solar power for only some aspects of your rural lifestyle. For example, solar-operated pump systems can be used to power water trough supplies, house water supply systems, and irrigation systems. Smaller ones can be relatively inexpensive to set up, costing hundreds rather than thousands of dollars. One New Zealand firm providing prices and guidance on system design and implementation can be found here and offers a wide range of systems ranging in water pumping capacity from 500 to over 10,000 litres per day for trough and house supplies, through to irrigation systems capable of pumping over 50 litres per second through hundreds of metres vertically.

Whatever your desired degree of involvement with solar power, from small-scale water pumping to total self-sufficiency, systems are becoming cheaper and more accessible, and workshops and training programmes are also more readily available. As a viable energy option, many people believe solar energy has finally made it onto the radar.