Summer read: He doesn’t call himself an environmentalist, but a timber-processing factory owner is at the forefront of a renewable energy revolution. Alex Braae went to Te Puke to talk to him.
First published February 9, 2021.
The bright, warm sunshine of Te Puke already helps grow some of the best kiwifruit in the world. Now a local factory owner is harnessing the rays, and reckons others should do the same.
Leyton Dowman runs Jalco, a specialty timber processor in the Bay of Plenty town. Just over a dozen people work there, shaping wood into parts needed to finish the inside and outside of houses. The factory floor is noisy, with machines running at full blast all day. And their huge saws and planers are partially powered by a big bank of solar panels perched on the roof.
With the panels installed in 2018, the factory became the first timber processor in the country to be solar powered. It’s a potent symbol of how increasingly, good environmental decisions are also good economic decisions.
Dowman doesn’t call himself an environmentalist. “Not so much, no. I’m not really a tree-hugger,” he chuckles when asked if it’s how he thinks about himself, sitting in an office furnished entirely with wood.
“I started off as a grease monkey,” says Dowman. “I was a mechanic for 13 years, with a muscle car sort of background. We used to build a lot of hot rods, and that’s always been a passion of mine.”
And yet, better environmental outcomes seems to underpin everything Jalco does. Over the course of a conversation and tour of the factory, he repeatedly brought up the environmental implications of various decisions and products made by the company, giving the impression that it was always on his mind.
Dowman’s home is totally off the power grid, and has been now for more than a decade. His initial solar system was expensive and not nearly as effective, but that changed when it was upgraded. “I love it, because I can go home and see the fact that we’re still not using everything we produce,” he says. “You’re not greatly affected, and you don’t miss out on anything.”
When looked at through his eyes, generating solar power seems quite fun. He’s got an app that allows him to see in real time how much power is being produced, which he checks regularly. It can almost be gamified, watching the graphs to see if yesterday’s tally will be beaten. There’s also a serious side to it.
“I think there’s commonsense things we can do better. And being able to be part of, you know, not throwing rubbish out the car window or whatever it may be. But actually looking after what we’ve been given. We’re here to take care of the world and the country and where we are, and we respect that.”
The wood waste from Jalco doesn’t get binned. Firstly it gets sent to farms, so it can be used for bedding for calves. And after that, it gets gathered up and mixed with manure, to be used as fertiliser – combining again with the sun to make grass grow. “Because it’s biodegradable, it’s perfect for it, so we don’t have an impact on the environment in that respect.”
Dowman gives an example of the company’s thinking. “We’ve been building some timber cabins. Of course they’re great for us as an extra product, and better for the environment [in terms of materials] having those things. But we’ve added solar systems to them, so there are offices in the middle of orchards or farms or whatever, and you can set up a system so that they’re totally off-grid. It gives them an option for how they can do what they do better, while also being good on the wallet.
“So yes, it makes some business sense, and that’s great, but it also means I know we’re adding to the solution, and not the problem.”
Putting a solar system in place also changes the way that Dowman thinks about energy. “It massively changes it. In our factory we’ve put in big LEDs. We used to have the big bulbs that took 10 minutes to warm up, and if you turned them off you couldn’t start them again for an hour. Not only were they producing heat in summer, they were just using so much power.”
Now with the LEDs, “they’re twice as powerful, use about a quarter of the power, and pay for themselves in 18 months or so. We put them in years ago, so we’re reaping the benefits of it,” he says.
He likens it to how people who are energy conscious behave in their own houses. “At home, you do get into that mindset of not wasting power. We don’t turn on every light in the house, because in winter time it’s a more precious thing. We don’t leave everything on standby. We have a small backup generator if we need to, but that’s just another cost and a waste if we have to use it.”
A little before midday on a partially cloudy January morning, the Te Puke factory had produced about 12 times the electricity an average house would use in a day. Over the course of a beautiful sunny day that can get up to producing what more than thirty average houses would use.
It’s a serious chunk of energy, which matches the investment made into it. And like the planting of a tree, the earlier such a project gets under way, the better for the company. Year-to-year comparisons can be made that give a decent idea of how much electricity will be generated each month. The longer a system is in place, the better the chances it will pay itself off – Jalco’s should take about seven years for the investment to fully mature. If power prices go up sharply, that’ll happen more quickly.
The expansion of solar power occupied the Climate Change Commission, which released its first round of advice to the government on meeting emissions reductions obligations recently. The vast majority of New Zealand’s electricity currently comes from renewable energy – at least depending on where you stand on the debate over whether hydro really is renewable, given the potential for dry years. But over time, demand for electricity is likely to increase, as it replaces other, dirtier forms of energy, particularly in transport. That could shift prices up.
Under the commission’s modelling, the hypothetical closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter – the largest single user of electricity in the country – would free up supply, thus lowering prices. In the roadmap set out by the commission, one of the assumptions for meeting emissions targets is that more renewable capability starts being built basically now – including solar.
Solar isn’t perfect from an environmental perspective. The commission’s report noted that “many technologies important in the transition to a low-emissions economy – including wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries – require mineral and metal inputs. How these minerals and metals are sourced, recycled and disposed could have negative environmental impacts here and overseas.”
Battery technology is one of the drawbacks of current solar energy generation. The power bill for Jalco basically evaporates in the summer months, but in winter they still have to buy from the grid. “Unfortunately the only way to get around that is with expensive batteries, which are still not that good on the environment, so it’s limited,” concedes Dowman. The mining of lithium – a key ingredient in batteries – often causes severe environmental damage.
There’s also an inflection point at which increasing the solar capacity would no longer be economical, particularly if it resulted in the factory consistently over-producing the amount of energy it needed to run. There isn’t much value in selling electricity back to the grid, and putting the infrastructure in place carries an expensive upfront cost.
But the investment in solar still has a massive impact on reducing the factory’s environmental footprint. And for the country as a whole, solar power can do something that no other form of energy feasibly can – be generated right when and where it is needed.
Brendan Winitana from the Sustainable Energy Association of New Zealand says solar is still only rarely used in business and manufacturing. There are about 500,000 electricity meters currently hooked up to non-residential properties around New Zealand, and of those about 200 have solar systems set up, at various sizes. Sylvia Park mall, for example, has a massive bank of panels on the roof. In that case, it keeps the lights on and the shops open.
Solar uptake in businesses is being held back by a lack of understanding and education, says Winitana. “The business case for solar stacks up really well, but people are not necessarily across it.” He also says there continues to be pushback from established generators, who might see a threat from new technology. “Obviously if an organisation puts solar on the roof, a retailer can’t sell them any more power.”
But that too is changing. Electricity retailers are now starting to move into the solar system supply industry. “It’s a total mindset shift for them,” says Winitana. “They’re used to generating huge masses of electricity through hydro down the bottom of the country, or through coal generation in Huntly, and then shifting it around the country through poles and wires.” Transmission costs are part of the wider price of electricity.
“Solar is a totally different model, and this is where it’s really disruptive, because solar is the most economical onsite generation process. You’ve got lots of roof space? Let’s turn that into a power station, and use the power at the point of need,” says Winitana.
Uptake around the world is growing sharply, largely for economic reasons. The cost and effectiveness of solar systems has come down a lot, and over the last six years, more money has been spent on installing solar than any other form of energy.
And this is music to Dowman’s ears. He’s an outlier in the business world at the moment, and says he sometimes feels like “we’re putting our neck out to have a look at what else we can do”.
“Power’s only going up in price, we constantly need it. With the expansion of housing and whatnot in the region, there’s going to be a greater load on the system. This would add to the system, but also reduce the power bills for a lot of people.”
He’s particularly keen to see more companies in the region to take advantage of the plentiful sunshine. After all, any part of the country that supports sun-hungry fruit growing will also be perfect for solar. Several of Jalco’s customers and suppliers are also investing in solar, and Dowman mentions one who asked him for advice on where in his business he should put capital. The answer was simple – solar.
“He thought I’m actually better off putting in the exact same thing. This is going to be beneficial for me and my family trust and what we’re doing. It’s pretty cool to see other people getting on board.”
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