Should NZTE have helped Google exec Urs Holzle invest in NZ solar power?


OPINION: The right or wrong of government agencies helping wealthy foreign businessmen make New Zealand their first or second home became hotly debated after contrarian US billionaire Peter Thiel was granted citizenship and investment grants in 2012.

But it took an Official Information Act request and the Ombudsman’s intervention to shed more light on Immigration New Zealand’s decision to grant Google’s senior vice president Urs Hölzle an exemption to relocate here last year.

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Immigration Services issued Holzle a 12-month “critical worker” visa on the recommendation of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, at a time when most people were unable to enter the country due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Holzle’s seniority at Google is best illustrated by the fact that he was the internet giant’s sixth employee.

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For several months, his reasons for staying in New Zealand remained a mystery, and none of the authorities were willing to provide any information about Holzle’s status.

A report by US technology news site Cnet suggested his move to New Zealand could be more of a change of scene.

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“After three decades in the USA, my wife and I thought it was time to think about a new location,” Holzle is quoted as saying.

“We decided to spend a year in New Zealand and see how we like it.”

However, in April it emerged that Holzle was granted residency for a proposed investment in solar power startup Helios Energy, which announced its intention to make a $1.3 billion investment in grid-tied solar systems.

Google Senior Vice President Urs Hölzle.

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Google Senior Vice President Urs Hölzle.

Helios CEO Jason McDonald said the company has been quietly developing plans for a pipeline of grid-connected solar farms sufficient to produce about 1.8 terawatt-hours of electricity, which would cover about 4% of the country’s electricity needs.

Macdonald is Chairman of Wellington-based car-sharing company Mevo and a former head of sales and marketing at Meridian.

Whether Helios truly becomes a vehicle for a $1.3 billion solar energy investment remains to be seen, but it appears to be making solid progress in its bid to become a player in the electricity market.

Late last month it announced it had reached an agreement with Transpower to connect its first proposed solar farm northeast of Transpower’s Edgecumbe substation near Whakatāne to the national grid, and said it would be an investment of US$150 million to US$200 million -dollars would be.

This month it announced it had also selected a site and reached an agreement with landowners for a second, slightly smaller solar farm south of Greytown.

There are plenty of other investors eyeing the opportunity to build New Zealand’s large-scale, grid-tied solar power plants, and they’re locked in a little race to cash in on what – for the early risers – should be a slam-dunk opportunity.

Analysts at financial consulting firm Forsyth Barr calculated in April, just before Helios unveiled its initial plans, that 12 different companies plan to develop 2.5 TWh of solar power and that another 2 TWh of solar power is more loosely discussed.

But it said it didn’t expect them all to make it through to completion.

What appears to be unfolding in the power market is a bit of a gold rush, as new entrants and now-established gentailers scramble to build the first few terawatt-hours of grid-tied solar before additional investments become more marginal and the business cases are harder to stack high.

Lodestone Energy, whose investors include Sir Stephen Tindall, Sam Morgan and Rod Drury, expects to start building its first site in Kaitaia next month and appears to be leading the way among potentially larger players, with Helios perhaps close behind.

Lodestone last year expected all of its solar farms to be built by the end of next year, although dates for the first have been pushed back by a few months. (Video first released in 2021)

On Tuesday, UK-backed Harmony Energy NZ received the resource pledge to develop a solar farm in Waikato capable of powering 30,000 homes.

Correspondence released by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) as part of the OIA shows that Holzle and his partner were not only offered a visa to live and live in New Zealand during the period of border closures, but also that Helio was offered assistance with the Presentation of other investors and local iwi and help in choosing locations for solar parks.

There are several reasons to argue that Holzle deserves a warm welcome and that its investment interest could benefit both the economy and the environment.

Solar energy company Helios is proposing a solar farm on a property south of Greytown in Wairarapa.  The land belongs to the Kempton family.

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Solar energy company Helios is proposing a solar farm on a property south of Greytown in Wairarapa. The land belongs to the Kempton family.

Independent producers like Lodestone and Helios could spur the country’s state-controlled gentailers to stop towing and increase their own renewable energy investments more wisely.

The more newcomers are chasing them, the greater the pressure.

If successful, they could also provide a small but useful foil to gentailers’ market power in the currently dysfunctional electricity wholesale market.

Swiss-born Holzle is director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and appears to have had a lifelong interest in the environment.

For many Kiwis, he will be a far more uncontroversial figure than Donald Trump’s supporter Thiel.

It is surprising, however, that there is no evidence in the material released by NZTE or Immigration that the authorities have considered whether by facilitating Holzle’s potential solar investment they may only be crowding out domestic investment in the same opportunity.

The emails show no indication that they attempted to analyze the context in which this investment might be offered, or whether the industry in which this investment would go was actually capital-constrained.

This despite evidence that Helios conveyed the fact that it was involved in a small race.

Helios co-founder Jeff Schlichting appeared to take note of Lodestone’s public disclosure in a partially redacted email to NZTE on May 12 last year and said he did not feel threatened by an undisclosed development.

“Their business model is very different from ours, and we’re happy to let them have the spotlight while we go about our work — as long as they don’t muddy the waters too much…” he wrote.

Helios didn’t want to confirm if Schlichting was writing about Lodestone, though Things had announced Lodestone’s plan to build five solar power farms on the upper North Island on the same day at a cost of $300 million.

It’s also easy to forget, now that Covid restrictions have been lifted, how tightly the border was managed when Holzle was put on an exemption and granted a visa.

An NZTE spokesman said: “As a rule, NZTE Investment examines each New Zealand company on a case-by-case basis”.

“We take an active role in introducing them to local investors and to that end we maintain strong links with the sector. In the last financial year, 80% or 86 out of 107 deals completed by NZTE Investment had a New Zealand primary investor.

“But there may be companies like Helios that would benefit from an international investor who has networks and knowledge that are not readily available in New Zealand and we are trying to provide the right connections for them,” he said.

Holzle is still in New Zealand which means his one year visa has been extended and hopefully he will stay here – he seems like a great guy.

But could we be confident that ‘NZ Inc’ will come out on top if Holzle decides he doesn’t want to settle in New Zealand long-term and takes back a large chunk of a solar power generation business that could have been locally owned overseas?

More generally, is it fair or necessary for local investors to have to compete with foreign investors who may be given the incentive of residency as a giveaway?

These are probably questions that NZTE should at least have considered.



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