solarZero - a Toitū carbonzero certification story

solarZero logo

solarZero has been around since the early days of the solar industry. In that time, the company has become New Zealand’s leading solar energy business, putting more solar systems on Kiwi homes and businesses than any other company. Their solarZero service brings solar power to households through a subscription model, allowing individuals to generate solar power at home without having to purchase the panels and back up battery. solarZero hopes this model will fill the gap of renewable energy generation, bringing New Zealand to 100% renewable energy.

Whether it’s their day to day Toitū carbonzero certified business operations or their peaceful energy revolution, solarZero has fully embraced the invitation of Toitū – active sustainability of people and place.

Toitū carbonzero logoSustainability at the core

For solarZero, everything comes back to doing what’s best for the planet and future generations. Sustainability completely informs their business model as well as daily activities. It is core to solarZero and they apply a continuous improvement approach to business practices, always searching for new ways to protect the environment.

Toitū carbonzero certification

solarZero has held Toitū carbonzero certification for over a decade (see their certification history here), the first solar company in the world to achieve that certification. Like many organisations, transport contributes most to their carbon inventory.

solarZero has been working to minimise air travel for years now, but some degree of travel has always been necessary. Their efforts paid off with a drop in their 2018-19 inventory. Then, not long after finishing the certification for that period, business as usual changed forever with the COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020.

As with many companies, solarZero’s staff became very familiar with online meetings, and that practice means that everyone is more comfortable meeting online instead of planning a trip. Even now that restrictions are lifted, it remains a routine approach to think twice about travelling unless there is a real need to meet in person, with each trip scrutinised by a senior manager before the booking is approved.

Petrol and diesel emissions are harder to reduce sharply with just efficiency changes, and travel is a business necessity when staff have to install or service the solar installations.

One step in the right direction has been adding an electric vehicle (EV) for the Auckland office. The office added a charging unit to the carpark, powered by the same solar panels that contribute to the supply of their office building, reducing the daily impacts of that EV even further. solarZero plans to replace more vehicles as current leases expire.

Nissan Leaf vehicle plugged in to chargeImage: Charging the Nissan Leaf at the solarZero Auckland office

The installation team need a vehicle that can work for a full day over long distances while transporting heavy loads of solar panels and batteries, and unfortunately fully electric options just aren’t yet available in New Zealand. In the meantime, they have switched to fewer vehicles.

One final piece of the transport puzzle is freight – getting the solar panels and batteries where they need to go. Careful advance planning has always been key here, with senior management discussions around shipping times and product requirements, choosing sea freight over airfreight. This was pushed even further during the COVID-19 lockdown, when supplies were no longer always at their fingertips.

Contingency plans for product supply were quickly shifted to a much more proactive model. solarZero looked closely at their supply chain to work out the best options, and the habit of forward thinking has stuck. That proactive approach now means that daily work not only looks after today, but also six or twelve months from now, and with that comes carbon reduction opportunities. One way to minimise the impacts is through ordering in bulk well in advance, which ensures business supplies but also lets solarZero take advantage of more emissions-efficient shipping options, like sea freight.

Doing the work

Passionate staff make solarZero’s mission of continual improvement a smooth and dynamic one, helping solarZero put the environment first. Toitū carbonzero certification isn’t just about making careful decisions about avoiding emissions, but requires careful data management to measure and validate the remaining emissions. Those data requirements of annual audit are well refined after eleven years.

In the early years of membership, solarZero developed custom templates that were updated regularly to keep an eye on things in real time. After eleven years, this is a very mature system. The Accounts Payable team, for example, updates the travel and transport data on a monthly basis – seeing data in real time makes it much easier to manage emissions continually. solarZero can quickly see if they are travelling too much or fuel costs are too high, allowing them to rapidly respond to avoid further emissions as well as save money.

Graph showing air travel emissions reducing over the last three years from 69.6 tonnes to 39.3 tonnes.

Image: Tracking domestic air travel has help cut the emissions in recent years.

Having the data to hand makes the impacts visible and turns the daunting project of climate action into something achievable and actionable. Constantly looking at carbon is the best way to drive your business forward by analysing what the business is actually doing. For solarZero, Toitū carbonzero certification creates discussion across the full business, not just at the sustainability desk, the procurement desk, or the accounts desk. Instead, as far as solarZero is concerned, carbon accounting is one of the best analytical approaches to better business – it’s a way to dive deep into what your business is doing, why, and how they can do it differently. From there the organisation can set and work towards targets they may not have otherwise put in place.

When setting those targets, solarZero advises that an organisation also set KPIs for managers and departments. This lets the departments look after their own impacts, but also pushes them to report at company updates on progress. For solarZero, the bulk of air travel occurs with the executives, most fuel is used by the installation team, and freight sits under procurement. Each department is able to use its discretion about what is achievable, but having a KPI means when a department isn’t able to work towards targets, they still report on why and the plans ahead. Giving ownership to departments keeps carbon in mind, letting people prepare so as soon as they can take action, they will.

solarZero encourages other organisations to make sure your suppliers give you the reports you need. While some inputs are straightforward as part of the end of year reporting, others need to be done monthly, quarterly or six-monthly. Carbon accounting can look like a lot of work, but solarZero advises that the trick is to make sure that all inputs are easily reportable. For solarZero, this means using fuel cards or getting freight reports directly from Toll. But even without this, solarZero reassures other organisations not yet doing the work: no matter the shape of your data, it’s pretty straightforward, it’s just about sitting down and taking the time to do it.

Engaging staff

It isn’t surprising that the staff of a solar power company are passionate about the environment. Every person inducted into the business is made fully aware of their ethos and commitment to carbon reduction. solarZero have even made their own training video. The five-minute video outlines the role Toitū carbonzero certification plays in the organisation and how staff can use the guidelines to keep emissions to a minimum.

As a mission-based organisation, solarZero has found they tend to attract heartfelt people. But this education at work helps bring any less informed staff along on the journey by providing a safe space to share information and support one another in the growing network of change. For solarZero, this is about being the change rather than forcing it, but they’ve seen that invitation taken up time and again. After all, when you can feel good about your day’s work making a tangible difference for the next generation, it’s hard not to feel that excitement.

Doing business for good

solarZero does more than just minimise their own footprint – they are taking on the responsibility of bringing as many others as possible on the journey to net zero.

Product stewardship

solarZero takes product stewardship seriously, and its manufacturing partner Panasonic is equally committed. The pair work together both to manage the supply chain, such as ensuring it is free from child labour, but are also committed to full circle recycling.

Two installers attach solar panels to a roofA solarZero branded battery installed at a homesolarZero panels and battery installation on house

Images: The solarZero installation team attaches solar panels on a roof. The solarZero battery stores excess solar energy and tops up with low-priced power sourced from the electricity grid, for use in the evening peak period and as backup power in an outage. The installation fits snugly on a home.

Let’s look first at their work with solar panels. The energy used to produce a panel is more than recouped during its life. It takes roughly two years to generate the same amount of energy required for a panel’s production so over its 20-year lifetime a panel will pay back the energy debt at least 10 times over. The solar panels they use are made predominantly from aluminium and silicon dioxide (sand), and at the end of their life, these materials can be broken down and reused.

solarZero also provides backup batteries to its customers. The battery is replaced after 10 years, and solarZero is working with Panasonic to repurpose these into other systems. The lithium ion cells are specifically designed to move into other products. For example, the cells from an EV can work in a moving vehicle for about 10 years, but then can have another 8 years as a stationary backup battery for a house, and then moved into data centres to be used in uninterruptible power supplies for another 20 years, before they finally need to be broken down into components. By partnering with Panasonic, solarZero will be able to tap into this wider lithium cycle; the companies are currently working together on the best approach to get the maximum return for every ounce of lithium brought to New Zealand and keep it out of landfill.

The solarZero service

solarZero knows that as individuals become more literate in power use and consumption, people will start taking action. The solarZero service puts energy in the control of individuals, empowering them to take an active role in their energy consumption as well as generation. The network of panels on a solarZero house provides power, as well as topping up a backup battery. Currently, the battery provides enough power to run the essentials in the home (such as the fridge, internet router and basic appliances) in an emergency or outage.

Each house has its own power dashboard to show power generation and use; this helps the household time their power use to maximise solar and battery usage rather than relying on the electricity grid. This helps the household save money, but the reduced demand on the grid also can help minimise the non-renewable power generation during peak times.

solarZero dashboard monitoring page shown on a laptopImage: The solarZero customer online dashboard shows their power generation and usage.

solarZero households remain connected to the grid, so they supply solar power back to the grid if they’ve generated extra or can top up from the grid if they need a bit more power. The majority of solarZero customers get their top up grid electricity through fellow Toitū carbonzero certified company Ecotricity, which provides renewably generated Toitū carbonzero certified electricity. Ecotricity ensures that enough renewable electricity is added to the grid to match any consumed by their customers, so solarZero customers can feel confident that they are supporting renewable energy generation either way.

The solarZero model is designed so that every household can participate. They won’t create a contract with a household unless they can guarantee cost savings. solarZero deliberately chose a subscription model to remove the cost barrier. solarZero also locks in a fixed power price for 20 years, in contrast to the variable market rate. Essentially, solarZero makes it easy and affordable for Kiwis to help fill the gap as we move to 100% renewable energy.

Grid for good

The solarZero service is currently focused at individual household resilience, though solarZero has many plans for the possibilities. They’ve already started work to help communities. After sponsoring Marae DIY to install solar on five marae across New Zealand, they’ve since gifted the systems fully to the marae and installed a sixth. Providing solar power to the community hub helps to educate the community on the possibilities, and the cost savings can be invested in benefiting the community instead. The system also provides backup power where whanau can gather in a local emergency or outage.

solarZero’s shared value of Kaitiakitanga drives the ongoing project. The work ahead will involve looking at how the marae can share energy across the community to help alleviate energy poverty or provide support during outages.

The Marae DIY solar installers set up safety gear to work on the roof installA Marae DIY installer sets up the solarZero backup battery

Images: The solarZero installation team working on one of the Marae transformations as part of Maori TV’s ‘Marae DIY’ programme.

That networking is on the plans more widely as well. solarZero is looking at how to pool battery storage capacity for use outside the home and into the community as the number of solarZero homes increases. solarZero is working with lines companies and power retailers, but the eventual goal is to have a solarZero street or a solarZero town. Right now, a solarZero house can welcome neighbours during an outage for a cuppa. solarZero sees this magnified in the future, imagining a time where a network of batteries could power the local hospital in a crisis.

The way forward

solarZero knows that climate leadership requires long term thinking and an intergenerational commitment to doing everything possible. As we move away from fossil fuels the demand for electricity will only increase. Shifting to local production through household and community solar will reduce the demand and take pressure off our infrastructure.

solarZero has done business differently for years. This has required research, innovation, investment and subsidies. An early chairman said that Kiwis would never be willing to sign a 20-year contract – today solarZero has 5,000 customers on board. Each is generating solar energy, avoiding carbon emissions, and building a Grid for Good.

solarZero continues to put carbon at the centre of every decision, bringing a careful data-based analysis to their mission as a climate leader. As a Toitū carbonzero certified company, and through their solarZero service, solarZero is pushing us to net zero one kilowatt at a time.

carboNZero LogoToitū carbonzero certified organisations

Toitū carbonzero organisation certification is proof an organisation is positively contributing to our environment through measuring, reducing and offsetting their carbon footprint. To achieve Toitū carbonzero certification, an organisation measures all operational greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions required under the international standard for carbon footprints, ISO 14064-1, including vehicles, business travel, fuel and electricity, paper, and waste. The emissions are measured annually, and the inventory is independently verified to ensure it is accurate and complete. Once they have measured their footprint, the organisation must develop plans to continually manage and reduce their emissions. Each year, unavoidable emissions are offset through the purchase of quality carbon credits to achieve net zero emissions. The organisation must reduce emissions on a six-year cycle.