19 Apr 2022

Top Google Exec Backs $1.3 Billion Investment in New Zealand Solar Power

19 Apr 2022  by   
Huge investment in NZ solar planned.

GETTY IMAGESHuge investment in NZ solar planned.

A top Google executive is among investors backing a $1.3 billion planned investment in solar power in New Zealand.

A new company, Helios Energy, formed by a group of United States and New Zealand entrepreneurs announced on Tuesday that it had been “quietly developing” a series of grid-connected solar farms that would have a combined maximum capacity of 1 gigawatt.

Helios director Jason MacDonald said that would be sufficient to produce about 1.8 terawatt-hours of power, which equates to about 4 per cent of the country’s electricity needs.

Helios announced that Urs Holzle, who was Google’s sixth employee and currently its global senior vice president of engineering, is among its investors.

Holzle was granted residency in New Zealand last year after receiving support from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise but until now the basis for his residency application had been unclear.

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Immigration NZ finally revealed on Tuesday that Holzle had been granted permission to live and work in New Zealand under NZTE’s Investment Attraction Programme.

MacDonald, who until 2016 was head of sales and marketing at Meridian Energy, the country’s largest power firm, said Helios expected to build about 10 grid-connected solar farms across the North and South Islands but was not ready to discuss exact locations.

Google senior vice president Urs Holzle.

SUPPLIEDGoogle senior vice president Urs Holzle.

“It is a competitive environment. Getting land, grid connection and sunshine all in the right place is the big challenge.”

A Google spokeswoman confirmed that Holzle was investing in Helios in a personal capacity and Google itself was not involved in the solar power venture.

Holzle was not available for comment at the moment, she said.

But Holzle, a keen conservationist, tweeted that he was “happy to be part of New Zealand's path towards 100 per cent carbon-free energy”.

Helios’ announcement comes amid a ‘gold rush’ of planned investments in renewable power, much of which is being planned by new businesses rather than the country existing dominant generators, Meridian, Genesis, Mercury, Contact Energy and Trustpower.

Broking firm Forsyth Barr calculated last week that another 1.5GW of installed solar capacity capable of producing 2.5TWh of power a year was being planned by 12 different businesses in specific projects, including Todd Energy’s Nova Energy and new entrant Lodestone Energy.

The Super Fund and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partner’s possible $5b investment in a huge offshore wind farm remains the biggest power project currently on the drawing board in NZ (file photo).

MICHAEL DWYER/APThe Super Fund and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partner’s possible $5b investment in a huge offshore wind farm remains the biggest power project currently on the drawing board in NZ (file photo).

Another 2TWh of solar power was being more loosely discussed, the broker calculated.

The NZ Super Fund and Danish investment fund Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners are separately investigating the feasibility of building a massive $5b offshore wind farm in the South Taranaki Bight.

They estimate that could produce an initial 4.5TWh of electricity if completed in about 10 years’ time and could later double in size.

Together the solar projects and the offshore wind farm would produce about 10.9TWh of power if they were all built, while New Zealand’s current electricity demand stands at about 43TWh.

That does not count planned investment in onshore wind farms and geothermal capacity.

But MacDonald said Transpower forecasts suggest the country could need about an additional 25TWh of generating capacity by 2050 to cope with demand growth which would be driven in part by the further electrification of transport and industry, and the phase-out of fossil-fuelled generation.

“There is a bit of work to do. We need a broad range of renewables all contributing to what could be a fairly large increase in electricity demand,” he said.


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