The deter­mined op­po­si­tion of the en­ergy es­tab­lish­ment pro­vided all the in­spi­ra­tion Ja­son Tobin needed to suc­ceed in the re­new­able en­ergy mar­ket.

Start­ing a business is tough enough in these volatile times. But when large and well-es­tab­lished com­pa­nies in the in­dus­try you’re try­ing to get a foothold in gang up and tar­get a mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign at you – that’s when you re­ally need to dig deep.

It’s also rare for an SME owner to sell a prof­itable con­struc­tion business af­ter 20 years and start over again in a more chal­leng­ing in­dus­try.

Such are the ex­pe­ri­ences and times of Ja­son Tobin, founder of Christchurch-based re­new­able en­ergy business So­lar Liv­ing – win­ner of the ‘Most Out­stand­ing Triumph Over Ad­ver­sity’ cat­e­gory in The David Awards 2016 for his team’s work in over­com­ing mas­sive op­po­si­tion.

“Money has never been my driv­ing fac­tor in life,” ex­plains Ja­son. “Grow­ing up, I was for­tu­nate enough to be sur­rounded by fam­ily who taught me it’s more im­por­tant to help oth­ers.

“This fun­da­men­tal be­lief sup­ported my pas­sion for the en­vi­ron­ment, and the idea that our de­ci­sions to­day will im­pact fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“Cli­mate change is one of the big­gest is­sues fac­ing our world, and I got tired of wait­ing for our gov­ern­ment to ad­dress it. I’ve al­ways been ex­cited by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of new tech­nol­ogy and I love tak­ing on chal­lenges to stay mo­ti­vated. So, I thought I might as well get started.”

Ja­son adopted the rec­om­mended classic ap­proach, spend­ing a year re­search­ing. Trav­el­ling to Ja­pan and Aus­tralia to study how oth­ers were us­ing so­lar tech­nol­ogy, and form­ing re­la­tion­ships with sup­pli­ers and sup­port­ers. When he fi­nally es­tab­lished So­lar Liv­ing in 2012, he reck­oned he was at the fore­front of some­thing great, but felt not every­one could see that po­ten­tial.

“New Zealand’s small-scale re­new­able en­ergy sec­tor was still form­ing. Hardly any­one in Christchurch had any real ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with grid-tied so­lar sys­tems. There were no cour­ses, no qual­i­fi­ca­tions and I had to adapt what oth­ers were do­ing overseas,” he says.

Ja­son also had to ab­sorb losses for 18 months as he pa­tiently ex­plained the ben­e­fits and sav­ings of so­lar en­ergy, and clar­i­fied the mis­in­for­ma­tion spread by elec­tric­ity re­tail­ers, un­til peo­ple started see­ing the light.

“Now we have some of the hap­pi­est cus­tomers in the world. Each month peo­ple send us charts of how much elec­tric­ity their sys­tem is gen­er­at­ing; how much they have saved each month; or en­ergy bills show­ing how much money their re­tailer owes them.

“It’s easy to stay mo­ti­vated when the ben­e­fits of what you’re do­ing are so clear and ap­pre­ci­ated,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean Ja­son’s strug­gle is over.

“There’s no doubt that so­lar chal­lenges the cur­rent en­ergy sys­tem. Elec­tric­ity re­tail­ers see cus­tomers gen­er­at­ing their own power as a threat to profit mar­gins, and so do ev­ery­thing they can to dis­cour­age it.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ja­son, en­ergy com­pa­nies Merid­ian and Con­tact En­ergy paid around 25 cents per kilo­watt hour (kWh) for sur­plus elec­tric­ity sent back to the grid in 2014. That De­cem­ber, elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies across the board slashed their buy-back rates to roughly eight cents per kWh.

He says this move is en­tirely out of step with what’s hap­pen­ing in other coun­tries, where small-scale so­lar gen­er­a­tion is ac­tively en­cour­aged. In New Zealand cus­tomers can ex­pect a very dif­fer­ent re­sponse from the en­ergy com­pa­nies. So­lar Liv­ing cus­tomer Tony Crafts picks up the story: “When our so­lar pan­els were in­stalled, the power com­pany wrote to us say­ing they were de­creas­ing the buy-back rate to bring it in line with what other power com­pa­nies were pay­ing.

“To my way of think­ing, what they were re­ally say­ing was: ‘We want to make more profit by giv­ing you, the cus­tomer, less’.”

So­lar Liv­ing then de­signed a sys­tem to help the Crafts use more of the elec­tric­ity they gen­er­ated in­stead of send­ing it back to the grid. Their to­tal an­nual en­ergy bill for 2015 was $601.78; an aver­age power bill of $50 per month.

“They have gained en­ergy free­dom from the big elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies, lit­er­ally by tak­ing some power back,” says Ja­son.


Ja­son is also buoyed by the fact that his con­struc­tion back­ground has been an as­set.

“More peo­ple are ask­ing build­ing com­pa­nies about so­lar, and I’m able to an­swer the tricky questions around in­cor­po­rat­ing re­new­able en­ergy into con­struc­tion projects.

“So­lar sys­tems are all about en­ergy gen­er­a­tion, so un­der­stand­ing roof-area re­quire­ments and load-bear­ing has cer­tainly come in handy dur­ing the design phase.

“The other im­por­tant is­sue is ‘pas­sive design’ and mak­ing homes more en­ergy ef­fi­cient. My ex­pe­ri­ence has al­lowed me to ad­vise clients plan­ning on build­ing or car­ry­ing out ren­o­va­tions to cre­ate a nat­u­rally warmer home with lower en­ergy bills.”

En­ergy ef­fi­cient smart-homes, and rapidly chang­ing tech­nol­ogy mean the price of so­lar pan­els per watt has fallen from $140 in 1975 to just $0.47 in Jan­uary 2017. Be­tween 2009 and 2015, the to­tal amount of so­lar power able to be gen­er­ated world­wide grew ten-times over.

So­lar pan­els, bat­tery stor­age tech­nol­ogy and elec­tric cars are be­com­ing cheaper, more ef­fi­cient, and more pop­u­lar each year, he says.

“I’m ex­cited by the fu­ture of so­lar and where it can take us. Some cus­tomers are charg­ing their elec­tric cars with the so­lar elec­tric­ity they’re gen­er­at­ing dur­ing the day. That’s like fill­ing your car with free petrol, and there are no car­bon emis­sions. The ben­e­fits for our en­vi­ron­ment and house­hold sav­ings are enor­mous.”

Peo­ple are also us­ing new tech­nol­ogy to find their way around the en­ergy es­tab­lish­ment’s con­stric­tions.

“Cur­rently, ex­cess so­lar elec­tric­ity flows into the power lines, where you’re cred­ited around eight-cents per kWh. [It’s then] sold to your neigh­bour’s home for 32 cents per kWh.

“Power Ledger has cre­ated a peer-to-peer elec­tric­ity trad­ing net­work to level the play­ing field, al­low­ing so­lar gen­er­a­tors to ne­go­ti­ate their own price and sell their ex­cess elec­tric­ity di­rectly to their friends, fam­ily or neigh­bours.

“A trial net­work is un­der­way in Auck­land and I can’t wait for the re­sults,” Ja­son says.

Ja­son’s en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mit­ment ex­tends to vol­un­teer­ing with a lo­cal char­ity, restor­ing na­tive plant com­mu­ni­ties.

His ad­vice: “Align your­self with in­di­vid­u­als who share your pas­sion, and never, never, ever give up.

“For some peo­ple, a job is just one way to pay the bills. I know what I’m do­ing is hav­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact on my com­mu­nity and the en­vi­ron­ment, so there’s no way I’m go­ing to stop.”

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