Renewable Energy around the world – Great Barrier Island

Murray Willis, a resident of Great Barrier Island (New Zealand), with one of the solar panels used to power his house. 

It might be half a world away from the United Arab Emirates, but solar power is important all over the world – including New Zealand. On Great Barrier Island, there is no mains electricity. For this reason, solar and renewable energies are the only way to keep everything running!

Last year, storm force winds hit Auckland City, the largest city in New Zealand. More than 85,000 houses lost mains electricity: heat, light, hot water and cooking facilities. Foodstuffs rotted in defunct freezers, traffic lights fizzled and reduced traffic to a crawl, and panic buying emptied supermarket shelves. Government officials fretted about declaring a state of emergency while days later power company workers were still struggling to reconnect some suburbs.

Some 86 kilometres northeastwards, Great Barrier (Great Barrier) Island sustained the same battering. Almost every road on the island was washed out and the network of tracks which weave around the coastline and mountains were ruined. But nobody lost power.

Despite being close to Auckland, Great Barrier is one of the most remote locations in the country. It is separated from the ‘mainland’ by Colville Channel, and every household on Great Barrier generates its own power.

A house on Great Barrier Island with solar panels installed.

“About 500 households on the island are completely self sufficient in energy – using either solar, wind or water power,” Whangaparapara resident, Murray Willis, says. “I installed about 350 of them.”

In the 1980s, the New Zealand Government subsidised the installation of power supplies to remote areas. A subsequent government got rid of this scheme, so people living on Great Barrier reverted to making their own energy generating systems. Wind generators which were locally made in the 1980’s from washing machine motors and scrap car wheel hubs, with blades made of aluminium pipe, are still in use at some houses.

Recently, Great Barrier residents were asked how many of them would use mains reticulated electricity from the mainland if it was made available – and 98% of them voted to stand alone.

“Why change? – we’re years ahead of the rest of the country,” Murray said.

All of the emergency services, including police and Great Barrier Marine Radio, are solar powered, as is the island medical centre. Murray proudly points to the success of Aotea FM. “We’re one of the only places in the world with a solar powered FM radio station,” he says.

“It all works well – it has to, renewable energy systems are always compared, for price and reliability, with mains power – so they have to be as good as the national grid.”

The Claris Town Centre, powered by solar panels.

Many New Zealanders are investigating whether they can use solar and renewable energies to power their homes. Depending on the amount of power you require, a good quality stand alone power system – including 5kW of solar power – will cost about $20,000. “Prices have come down considerably”, Murray said, “ten years ago a 60watt solar panel cost about $800 – or $133 per watt.”

He and wife Jan installed a solar and wind powered system at their Whangaparapara cottage 25 years ago and used it to run the power tools needed to build their adjacent house. “We’ve got a diesel generator as back up – I start it once a month to make sure it still works – but we haven’t used it in years.”

Summer weather has been getting wetter, he says, so he also installed a Pelton wheel generator in a nearby creek. “That’s the best system of all – just generating away day and night, whatever the weather.”

“Water heating is a big power user – we used a wetback off the wood stove – but we don’t run heat pumps, underfloor heaters, heated towel rails and haven’t got a heated pool or spa. But so what? – they’re a small price to pay for being self reliant.”

“In power supply terms, Great Barrier Island is already where the rest of the western world needs to be,”

If you have any questions for Murray and Jan about how they live using renewable energy, please email them through to Belinda!

Photographs and wording adapted from an article by Lindsay Wright, local Great Barrier Island resident. All photographs remain copyright of Lindsay Wright.