Renewables and solar power as a reliable source of energy are on the rise on Australian farms as farmers share the load

Dairy farmer Michael Cains vividly remembers the rainy and stormy night he decided to install renewable energy to improve his power reliability.

The power had gone out at his property in Canowindra in Central West NSW, and his power provider had told him it would take three days to get it back on.

“I headed downhill to grab the 20 kilovolt generator, I revved my ute hard to get up the hill. I’m soaking wet. I put the generator on the system just as power comes back on,” he said.

He bought solar panels and a battery with a government grant and a loan from the Rural Assistance Authority.

Now it exchanges that power with neighboring companies using a ‘peer-to-peer’ system.

“We can use our own solar power first, fill the battery second, swap it between the house and the bar/cafe we ​​have in the middle of Robertson, and when we have excess power we can send it to Rosnay.” (a vineyard), or The Pines (a bed and breakfast).”

Cains isn’t the only dairy farmer to do this, as a 2020 survey by the industry’s leading body found that 71 percent of farms installed at least one type of renewable energy between 2015 and 2020.

Dairy Australia said the trend was well above 44 per cent and mostly included solar panels, water heating and variable speed drives, which regulate the flow of power in machinery to make it more energy efficient.

While data for the entire agricultural industry is not available, it is clear that many are making the switch.

Mr. Cains’ neighbor, winery and orchard owner, Sam Statham, installed 87 solar panels to power his property and contribute to the ‘peer-to-peer’ system.

Winemaker Sam Statham standing in the vineyard.
Sam Statham has buried his pipes to reduce evaporation while his solar pumps run during the day.(Supplied: Sam Statham)

Statham said he usually waters during the day when solar pumps work best.

“That’s when the plants need water, but that’s also when the water will evaporate the most from the heat of the sun, so what we did was put our drip irrigation pipes underground in the middle of the row of vines,” he said.

Further north in Queensland, Darling Downs cotton and chickpea farmer Don Baartz used a “green loan” from a major bank to spend $37,600 on a solar system to power his 18-kilowatt pump.

In addition to reducing his emissions, he said it’s saving him $8,000 a year in electricity costs.

a winch shed with solar farms on the roof and water tanks on the side and cattle outside in a yard
Solar energy powers 3-phase pumps, refrigeration, and more at this farm.(Supplied: Leap Farm)

Converting agricultural biomass into energy

Solar energy is not the only type of renewable energy that farmers turn to. Crop, pasture and timber waste products from plantations are also being used as a source of energy and business diversification.

Some farmers use rice hulls and macadamia nuts to power gasification and pyrolysis plants.

HydGene Renewables’ Louise Brown is developing a new catalyst technology to make hydrogen from straw, something she said was much more abundant than many would think.

“We were contacted last week by a farmer in Victoria who burns 200 tonnes of straw a year,” said Dr Brown.

She argued that it would be easy to collect and deliver that biomass to a central facility where it can be converted into clean hydrogen for domestic use or export.

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