Shining Through the Cloud

PowerSmart Solar

Solar energy is gaining increasing popularity in the land of the long white cloud. Proof of the spread of clean power sources is PowerSmart, a solar electricity specialist with more than fifteen years of international design and installation experience.

PowerSmart, now based in Mount Maunganui, solely focuses on solar photovoltaic (PV) integration and is one of the largest solar companies in New Zealand. That is no small feat for a company which really started with nothing – and no backing – in such a capital intensive industry.

The company was founded in 2007 but began much earlier with a shared vision of the three founders during their time at the University of Victoria in Canada. Founders Mike Bassett-Smith, Shane Robinson and Dean Parchomchuk saw an opportunity to create a company based on the principles of sustainability that would empower people to take better control of their electricity costs. For them, the simple elegance of harnessing sunshine for electricity simply had to become a reality and, ever since, they have committed themselves to being a driving part of this change.

Mike was the reason the company came to New Zealand as he moved there immediately after university and took up a job with ANZ Investment Bank. Shane had visited New Zealand with Mike before and was drawn to the lifestyle “and surf!” Dean, who is “always up for an adventure”, remained in Canada working in the solar industry until Mike and Shane had developed a real project for him to take on. It took a year of working from Shane’s living room in the Bay of Islands region of Northland for this to happen and, during that time, Shane and Mike spent plenty of time surfing. They now “look back fondly on the days when the phone didn’t ring, nothing was terribly urgent, and surfing opportunities could be harnessed at any time.”

The company, now in its eighth year, has grown to some twenty-eight employees. It has a nationwide network of partner installers and an impressive portfolio of work, ranging from residential to utility scale systems throughout New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica and the Pacific.

Solar is cheaper and more efficient than ever, which is driving a solar power revolution around the world. In New Zealand, this has resulted in increasing competition in the market. The uptake of solar had previously been hindered by a lack of awareness of the benefits and by high capital costs – two factors which are both changing favourably for the consumer. Recent media coverage about solar is increasing the knowledge of consumers. The announcement of the Greens Party’s Solar Homes’ policy has also driven PowerSmart’s number of enquiries significantly.

PowerSmart pioneered a formal installer training process and has certified and supported solar system installers nationwide. Its dedicated in-house installation team continually supports and further trains all partner installers. The company is committed to providing local employment where possible and to the development of local communities by providing education and skills training. PowerSmart’s team atmosphere helps to create extremely positive working relationships with local subcontractors and communities.

“Because of the volume of installations that we are doing throughout the region, we have direct relationships with all of our suppliers. This enables us to not only get competitive pricing but, more importantly, these relationships ensure we are able to deliver the very best service and guarantees to our customers,” says General Manager Rogier Simons.

This experience is exemplified with the Tokelau Renewable Energy Project (TREP), where the system is relatively complex and local operators have been trained by PowerSmart to operate the system as Tokelau’s primary supply of energy. The team provided regular night classes to train the system operators in Tokelau and continues to provide online and phone and support for them.

PowerSmart was the lead contractor for TREP, a NZ $7.5m project that has replaced diesel power stations with solar power systems on each of Tokelau’s three atolls. The project commenced in late 2011 and was completed in the third week of October, 2012. In total, the project is one megawatt of solar power systems, including batteries and full control electronics, that are ground mounted and designed for an extreme atoll environment. As well as the comprehensive local training and operation programs, remote monitoring and maintenance is also provided by PowerSmart. The company completed this project in line with the schedule and budget put forth in the original tender and it won NZ Innovator of the Year for the category of Innovation in Sustainability and Clean-tech.

The conversion of the three atolls to one hundred per cent solar power has eliminated their reliance on fossil fuel, removed financial risk of increasing fuel prices and enhanced the social well-being as more people now have access to power. The relationships established have led to the future sponsorship of Tokelauan wrestler, Ilai Elekana Manu, who is attempting to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

PowerSmart prides itself on the multi-national, multi-lingual and gender equal nature of its team. But, more than this, the company demonstrates the high levels of international experience that its staff can gain working within a local New Zealand company. In the long term, it is committed to hiring young enthusiastic people to pass on knowledge and training to become more valuable members of the community; the company regularly hires engineering interns to assist with project work and allow them an insight into the solar industry.

The company is working on both sides of the Tasman. The Department of Education of the Australian Capital Territory Government has a $51 million Solar for Schools program which aims to install 10 kilowatt-peak (kWp) grid-connected PV systems on all primary schools in the ACT, and 20 or 30 kWp systems on all secondary schools. PowerSmart successfully tendered for the contract and received the highest technical score among the panel of providers. To date, some thirty-one systems have been completed by the company and it is currently under contract to monitor and maintain the systems as well as track and warrant their performance.

Late last year, PowerSmart completed the installation of a 99 kW system on Peter Yealand’s Yealands Estate winery in Blenheim. At the time this was the largest system in New Zealand, producing over 130,000 kWh of electricity per year – enough to power seventeen average NZ households. For Yealands Estate, this is part of their continued drive to be the most sustainable winery in the world. Peter said at the time that, “We are delighted to be supplementing our existing renewable energy supply, which already incorporates solar water heating, wind and biological initiatives. This will certainly assist us achieve our ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.”

Also in late 2013, PowerSmart won the contract to install a 100 kW system for the Palmerston North City Council. The system was installed in mid-February and is now the biggest system in New Zealand. Rogier says smaller systems are also popular. “Our residential business continues to grow and has been busy over the summer, installing systems throughout New Zealand.”

Further afield, the company is currently completing utility scale installations in Costa Rica, Fiji and Palau. PowerSmart recently completed a 66 kW solar PV installation for Total Fiji at the Vuda Terminal and is engaged with Vunabaka Bay Fiji to design and install a solar electricity system for the Vunabaka Bay resort development that is now under way. However, “while we have a number of projects going on offshore, New Zealand is still our main focus. We are looking to revolutionise the energy sector in New Zealand and are continually looking for new ways to offer solar electricity to more consumers.”

Solar is no longer just a green option, the company believes. “As technology advances it becomes increasingly more affordable. It is a reliable, efficient and cost effective energy source with estimated returns of nine per cent, making it a viable option for homes and businesses.”

“Our vision is a world powered by sunshine. In order to do this, we want to give power to the people. We give people more power and more choice when it comes to their energy. We also supply them with electricity for their homes, businesses and communities – literally giving power to the people. That’s what we’re about, and that will never change. Our philosophy is based on these two words – people and power. We have a great team who believe in providing people with more choice and greater power for their lives.”

For more information about PowerSmart Solar, please visit http://powersmartsolar.co.nz/

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