Date published: May 18, 2023

First site for Firstlight

A remote East Coast customer has been disconnected from the grid after Firstlight Network teamed up with Base Power to find a non-wires solution.

A solar, battery and backup diesel generator system is now powering the rural property and providing greater security of supply.

The Base Power system is on an East Coast property beyond the Tarndale slip, one of the largest land movements in the remote Raukūmara Range. The property had been the only connection on a 16-kilometre-long line in an area prone to storms, slips and treefall, Firstlight general manager Jarred Moroney says. 

Severe weather events have frequently damaged the line over several years, leaving the customer without power and requiring the distributor to make repeated and extensive repairs.

Before taking the property off the physical network, Firstlight needed to ensure any solution stacked up against what a connection could provide. 

“We have a responsibility to our customers to make sure we’ve considered all the options,” Moroney says.

"In this case, it made sense for us to set the property up with everything they need to have the same quality of power as when they were connected.”

Base Power business manager Kieran McNair says the property is a “perfect example of where off-grid and non-network solutions can help lines companies invest in maintenance and line upgrades in locations where it can have the greatest effect”.

Firstlight covers the Gisborne-Wairoa area of the East Coast region. Formerly known as the Eastland Network, the electricity distribution business was bought by Firstgas Group at the end of March. It serves about 27,500 customers, about half of which are in and around Gisborne. 

Standalone network solutions

Base Power – owned by Powerco - designs and delivers utility-scale off-grid solutions for lines companies in both New Zealand and Australia. 

The firm has 37 standalone power systems operating in this country on farm buildings, worksites, residences, communications towers, DOC huts and even a school.

The expected annual load for the Tarndale site is 36,000 kWh – which Base Power considers a "heavy user" for a rural residential customer. 

The firm’s average system is sized to meet 20,200 kWh per year of electricity usage, averaging about 55 kWh per day.  

The larger Tarndale Base Power system consists of 16 Simpliphi 3.8 lithium iron phosphate batteries, providing 49.28 kWh of usable storage. The 32-kilowatt solar system is made up of 80 400-watt panels.  

This is paired with a 16kVa 169L CAT diesel genset. That will provide support in times of low light or high load and is expected to make up less than 10 per cent of annual electricity generation for the property.

“For this customer, we are expecting 1200 hours of generator runtime per annum,” McNair says.

The smart system includes solar forecasting to minimise generator runtime, embedded communication devices to share the system status in real-time, and supporting resources for both the customer and the lines crews.

Ownership, upskilling

Firstlight owns the Base Power system and its crews will manage the maintenance of the site.

Base Power worked alongside the Firstlight team to build a bespoke plan to meet the customer’s energy requirements and optimise the assets, McNair says.

It also upskilled the team’s knowledge of solar and battery storage installations. 

The property owner received a tablet allowing them to check on the system. Firstlight also provided the customer with “tips” on optimal use of the system, Moroney says.

Considering more sites

Moroney notes the region has experienced several severe weather events in the past including Cyclone Gabrielle in February, which added considerably to its work throughout the summer of 2023. The firm is considering how it can improve the resilience of its assets and connections for the Tairāwhiti and Wairoa communities. 

This project is the first time it has moved a customer to an off-grid platform, and Moroney says the network is not talking with other customers - yet. But Firstlight is now looking at where it can offer similar solutions to other remote network properties. 

“We are looking across the network to see where we could implement similar options.”

McNair notes that Powerco developed Base Power to give off-grid options in “areas where maintaining the line was having a real impact on its customers in challenging terrains”. 

“Our standard system of a solar array paired with a smart energy management system and backup generator adds a lot of security and value for both the customers and the network operators.” 

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