The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled that a complaint about Greenpeace’s use of the word “tax” to describe an extra charge for solar power has no grounds to proceed.

In April, lines company Unison, which has a natural monopoly on the local transmission of  electricity in the Hawke’s Bay, Taupo and Rotorua, announced it would be increasing fees for any households generating their own electricity through technology like solar.

Greenpeace New Zealand labelled the move a “tax” designed to discourage people from installing solar panels on their roofs.

Greenpeace Executive Director, Russel Norman, says in the face of a climate emergency Unison is failing to meet social and environmental responsibilities to eliminate fossil fuel use and promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We need to get real about our changing climate. We simply can’t keep hoping for the best while continuing to drill, frack and burn coal.  We need tangible solutions, which includes supporting rapid uptake of clean energy like solar,” he says.

The ASA ruled that although Unison’s network charges for solar don’t fit the legal definition of the word “tax”, the word is considered appropriate by some because the charges are compulsory and are a demand on people’s resources.

“Greenpeace says the charge on solar energy is a tax because it’s a targeted and compulsory levy imposed on solar users in order to raise revenue for Unison. As a monopoly, residents in the Unison region effectively have no choice but to use its services, unless they were to go off the grid entirely,” Norman says.

“The move is a poorly thought out reaction to Unison feeling threatened by the rise of solar power in New Zealand. Instead of thinking innovatively about how people will be using and paying for distributed clean energy like solar in the near future, Unison simply tried to tax it.

“This was a terrible mistake because it instantly presented Unison as a company interested  in protecting the status quo, rather than a forward-thinking business that understands that solar power is now one the fastest growing energy sources in the world. Solar gives families and communities the power to manage their own electricity, it displaces dirty fuels like coal, and it can cut monthly power bills substantially.”

Norman says that paradoxically, solar customers are exactly the kind of informed consumers that Unison needs.

“They move their demand to the middle of the day when the sun is shining and the load on the local network is lowest. The solar customers we spoke to showed us how they were moving their electricity use away from the evening peak, which is actually what Unison would like its customers to be doing.”

Unison’s solar charges were met with national outrage, and in just four weeks more than 45,000 people signed a Greenpeace petition asking New Zealand’s electricity watchdog, the Electricity Authority (EA), to regulate to protect solar.

Subsequently, New Zealand musician Tiki Taane took 45,000 paper suns to the EA in Wellington, each with the name of someone who signed the petition.

Taane was showered with the paper suns in the reception while serenading the Authority with his song, Shine Your Love, which he wrote especially for the occasion.

The unique petition delivery was made into a music video that has amassed tens of thousands of views. The petition has since passed 75,000 names.