Best Community Energy Project 2021

Winner: Infratec for the Energise Ōtaki Community Project

This Energise Ōtaki (EO) project is unique because it is the first solar energy community project in New Zealand that utilises an integrated community / local government implementation model.

The project comprises two solar installations: a 106 kWp ground mounted solar farm located at the Otaki Wastewater Treatment Plant and a 23 kWp roof mounted solar system located at Otaki College.

The solar facilities were funded by the Wellington Community Trust and are owned by not-for-profit organisation Energise Otaki. Electricity from the ground mounted array is sold to Kapiti Coast District Council at market rates for use at its Ōtaki Wastewater Treatment Plant (the first for any NZ local government). Similarly electricity from the roof mounted array is sold to Ōtaki College. The revenue is then placed into the Energise Ōtaki Community Investment Fund to be used on an annual basis to fund sustainable energy projects large and small, proposed by local community groups.

A community committee made up of representatives from Energise Ōtaki, the local hapu, the Kapiti Coast District Council and the funder of the farm allocate funding to community projects. Effectively this approach grows the initial wealth invested over time and allows it to cascade down through funded projects into grass roots change and community benefit.

Both the Kapiti Coast District council and Otaki College benefit from the use of renewable energy, and delight in returning the revenue they spend on energy directly back into their own communities rather than the purse of a corporate energy company.

Though relatively small (130kWp) in the world of energy production, it is the largest community project to date in New Zealand and is the first of five intended solar installations in and around Ōtaki which will feed large users (planned up to 4MW of installations). This first installation has established the approach and signals a quantum step forward.

In the context of this award, the project is about a not-for-profit community organisation delivering a project to the community, along with the 25 year benefits. But, as important as Infratec think that achievement and future benefit is, it is also important to understand just how innovative the underpinnings of this project have been, and how it has led to major new community partnerships. Infratec are justifiably proud and believe the approach EO have taken is transferable around New Zealand.

The successful implementation of the project involved four crucial partnerships:
The first was with Kapiti Coast District Council. While EO had previous experience with smaller installations at Ōtaki College, EO had to work through the concept for this project with the Council. It involved obtaining in principle Council support, discussions about leasing land, and supply and pricing agreements. It was a lengthy conversation because this was a first for the Council and in reality, a first in New Zealand. The Council supported the concept; something that in the risk averse world of local government should be valued and not passed over lightly.

The next step was finding a social good funder who would see the proposed benefit of growing their initial investment over time, while simultaneously returning benefit to the local community. The Wellington Community Trust actively sought to help EO and funded the full capital cost of the project ($407,000), which allows all the revenue benefit over the next 20-25 years to be invested straight back in the community. This ‘impact funding’ was new to them and very new to New Zealand and reflected a willingness to go beyond the standard approach to social good funding. The Trust demonstrated to other Community Trusts in New Zealand that they could, through energy investment, substantially grow the initial wealth while achieving social and environmental benefit; the two are not mutually exclusive.

The third partner in this story is Infratec Ltd, who was selected via a contestable process to design and build the solar arrays. Once selected, EO and Infratec reviewed the scope together and embarked on a whole new partnership approach. This co-development approach was effectively an open book structure which allowed a review of component costs and to negotiate margins. It gave Infratec the ability to talk freely and openly about the project and develop design and cost solutions. It gave EO access to wider advice, and the ability to build an on-going relationship. EO commented that they were “…extremely lucky to find a very positive innovative partner in the build...”

Finally, an important partner for was Nga Hapu o Ōtaki who gifted the name Rau Kumara for the Ōtaki Wastewater Treatment site, blessed the site and appointed a representative to the Committee which will allocate future funds for community energy projects.



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