Promising future for renewable energy in Australian agribusiness

Published: February 2020 I By: Michael Sheather

Renewable energies have been around us from the dawn of time, but now the sun and wind provide farmers with the power to cut costs and emissions.

Kay and John Smith with Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen (to the left), at the opening of their solar-powered robotic dairy in Bulahdelah. Source: supplied. 
DAIRY farmer Kay Smith didn’t know anything about alternative energy sources until she bumped into a ukulele maker named Michael outside her local shops in Bulahdelah.

“There are only four shops in Bulahdelah’s main street so it’s not hard to bump into people while you are shopping,” Kay told the recent National Renewables in Agriculture Conference. But that chance meeting has become a critically important moment in the economic future of her family’s Myall River Pastoral Company.

The company, started by Kay’s father and until recently operated by her husband John, was in the midst of a long-overdue revitalisation. This included the design and building of a new robotic dairy to cut costs and smooth out production on the 770-hectare farm outside Bulahdelah in the NSW Hunter region. 

But the project had hit a roadblock in the form of a $100,000 quote to supply high-voltage power to a pole in a paddock, and many thousands of dollars more to connect the new dairy, shed and associated buildings.

Solar powered solution for innovative robotic dairy

“Michael asked me how the new dairy project was going,” recalled Kay, who took over running the farm after John was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. “I told him about the $100,000 quote and how it was going to cost thousands more to connect the dairy and shed and the other buildings to that supply.

“Michael looked at me and said, ‘Well mate, you’d better start considering alternatives.’ We hadn’t even considered alternative power solutions because we had very little exposure to, or knowledge of them. 

“But we’d had plenty of problems with power to the old dairy and had installed a back-up generator to cover outages during milking, as not being able to milk cows regularly carries high financial costs and health costs for the herd. So, Michael the ukulele maker planted a seed that day.”

And, 18 months later, that seed is about to sprout into Australia’s first solar-powered robotic dairy farm. Due to begin operation early this year, it has three robot milkers to service the company’s revitalised herd of 210 cows, with another 70 cows and an additional robot set to join the operation in a second-stage development.

Floating solar panels on farm dams set to cut energy costs
Why solar stacks up for farmers
Solar power: the sky’s the limit 

Agriculture’s renewable energy revolution
Kay’s story of solar-powered revitalisation is not an isolated one. As fellow speakers at the National Renewables in Agriculture Conference confirmed, Australia is quietly undergoing a renewable energy revolution, which has the potential to bring certainty to input costs and increased efficiency to operations, as well as savings for farmers across the country.

Karin Stark and her husband have installed the country’s biggest solar diesel irrigation pump on their farm. Source: NSW DPI.  

Conference convener Karin Stark, a farmer who also works part time in the burgeoning renewables sector, welcomed more than 200 farmers and energy representatives from across NSW and interstate to Wagga Wagga for a day of discussions and panels structured around explaining the benefits renewable energy can provide for farmers, as well as warning about some of the pitfalls to watch for.

Held last November as the nation was beset by devastating drought and bushfires, the message from the conference about the impact of climate change seemed all the more poignant.

“The transition to decentralised, decarbonised energy systems is happening rapidly right around the world,” Karin told the gathering. “The way I see it, agriculture cannot afford to miss the opportunity to take part in this revolution or the other opportunities that renewable energy sources present.

“Adoption of on-farm renewables cuts costs, builds long-term business resilience and cuts carbon emissions, and also creates strong regional communities – and this is something that is vitally important in the times we are living through now with extreme droughts and catastrophic fires.”

However, the crucial theme of the conference was not the doom and gloom of bushfire or political bickering about climate change. 

Primary agricultural producers play a key role in our energy future

Farmer and NSW Department of Primary Industries deputy director general agriculture Kate Lorimer-Ward. 

Instead, farmers were told Australia’s energy future looks remarkably positive from both an economic and social perspective, and producers have a key role to play in that future. The message was emphasised by NSW Department of Primary Industries deputy director general agriculture Kate Lorimer-Ward, who is also a farmer.

“The agriculture sector has significantly increased its use of electricity and energy as part of driving productivity gains during the past few decades,” she said. “But we did that in a low-cost environment. As those costs have risen, we have seen a drive from farmers to seek efficiency from a cost-pressure perspective.

“But cost is not the only factor motivating a lot of interest in this area. Agriculture is one of the most impacted sectors to changing future climates and that is also driving the momentum behind this. Really, there is an opportunity for farmers to be the agents of social change in this space, as well as the agents of economic change.
“Simply put, through an economic lens we have three decisions to make – we can legislate our way to change, we can innovate our way to change and we can incentivise our way to change.”

“Even from the most pragmatic point of view, there is a driver for us to respond to these challenges and that means learning the language around renewable energy and immersing ourselves into the art of the possible.”

Reducing fossil fuel dependency in the Australian farming sector 

The director of the Energy Change Institute at the Australian National University, Professor Ken Baldwin. 

Much of that change is already underway, according to Professor Ken Baldwin, the director of the Energy Change Institute at the Australian National University. “This is a good-news message for agriculture in particular,” he said.

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 26-28% by 2030. Agriculture is responsible for 13% of those national emissions, but much of it comes from biomass decay and the methane emissions of livestock, which are difficult to change.

But energy consumption is what Professor Baldwin describes as low-hanging fruit in the energy mix and can be adapted to contribute to fewer emissions. “If we can change fossil fuel-based electricity production to solar and wind and hydro types of renewable energy production, then we can address our emissions position very quickly,” he said.

Renewable energy sources will become an integral part of not just Australia’s economic future but also the world’s. “In the north of Western Australia’s Pilbara region we have enough solar and wind resources available to generate enough electricity to power the rest of the world,” he said. “That is how big our resources are.

“These forms of renewable energy are the energy revolution in raw form and it’s a revolution going on right now, and it’s going gangbusters. The costs of solar panels and wind turbines are coming down consistently, so much so that it is now cheaper to build a wind farm or a solar farm than it is to build a coal-fired electricity plant.”

David Mailler at his family run solar farm Chillamurra, the largest optimised solar farm in Australia at the time of its construction.  

Solar and wind renewable energy cheaper than coal

That means business is unlikely to ever build another coal-fired power station in Australia. In other words, Professor Baldwin said, our future energy is renewable. “We lead the world in the take-up of solar and wind turbine renewable energy and that is faster than any OECD country.

“We are currently installing 250 watts of energy generation per person per year and have the highest penetration of rooftop solar panels in the world at 24%.
“We are world beaters in the adoption of renewable energy and the agriculture sector is an increasing part of that.”

The future potential is enormous, the Professor said, with the possibility Australia could even become the powerhouse for China, Japan and the rest of Asia as it transitions from fossil fuel to renewables in the next decade. 

RELATED: Agtech and innovation a must for prosperous farming future
The technology to store renewable electricity as hydrogen and then to ship it internationally already exists, opening a huge future export potential for the economy as the world assigns fossil fuel to the past.
Australia’s largest solar-powered diesel hybrid irrigation pump

Cotton farmer Jon Elder replaced his diesel generator with the diesel-solar hybrid engine. Source: supplied. 

And Australian farmers are at the forefront of that change. Jon Elder, a cotton farmer from Narromine in Central West NSW, has installed Australia’s largest solar-powered diesel hybrid irrigation pump on his property, a machine designed to pump 15 megalitres (ML) of water a day – enough to fill about six Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

Jon told the conference 80% of his production is cotton and it used to take about 
110 litres of diesel to pump 1ML of water from the farm’s bore supplies at an annual cost of $400,000. 

He replaced his diesel generator with the diesel-solar hybrid engine, along with 1,500 solar panels, in September 2018. By the end of 2019, he expected to have pumped about 1,500ML of water by solar energy. 

RELATED: Farmers turn to renewable energy to combat electricity costs
“That equates to 155,000 litres of diesel so this year alone we are expecting about $185,000 in savings. Keep in mind that it cost in rubbery figures about $1 million. That means we expect to break even in about five years,” Jon said.

“And while we are excited about what that means for our bottom line, what we are excited about is that we are saving 500 tonnes of carbon equivalent emissions, about the same emissions that come from a small village annually. 

“This technology bypasses the whole climate debate because not only is it a good environmental decision it’s also a sound business decision.”

Innovative Australian piggery runs on biogas

Pig farmer Tom Smith installed a biogas facility to produce electricity at his Victorian piggery. His son Jarad spoke about it at the renewables conference. 

Renewable solar or wind turbine energy is not the only innovation happening. Pig farmer Jarad Smith, who runs the Kia-Ora Piggery in Victoria, told the conference that his family piggery now mainly runs on gas harvested from the effluent produced by his pigs.
“We have a biogas generation system that was devised by my dad,” Jarad said. “Not only do we destroy about 20,000 tonnes of methane gas, we generate 3,800 megawatts of electricity each year.”

“The effluent from the piggery goes into ponds. The ponds are covered. We capture the gas under the cover. We treat the gas. We pump it to the generators, and we run all our sheds and equipment.

“We effectively have a huge battery in our effluent ponds that we can turn on and off whenever we like, according to demand. We don’t need sun or wind for our energy, and we are currently saving about $15,000 a month of our energy bill from two generators. When we bring a third online next year, we expect to save $25,000 a month.”


Cutting costs and making profits from pig poo
Biofuels: Australian farmers’ untapped resource
After hearing from farmers who have already installed a variety of renewable energy solutions, conference attendees split into three workshop groups to explore how to tailor a system to their particular situation, including a cold storage chains group chaired by NSW Farmers’ CEO Peter Arkle.

Of course, not everything about renewable energy is a win-win. John Cutler, managing director of Keemin Energy Solutions, warned farmers to do their homework if they intend to install renewable energy systems.

“Trust is such a big word in this business,” he said. “And you have to trust your supplier. 
“I would advise everyone to do their research, get testimonials, ask for references before you launch into a project. More than 600 suppliers have disappeared from the sector in recent years.”

“That means there are a lot of people out there whose systems are now orphans with no back-up.

“The truth is there is not a single system that will apply to every situation. In fact almost all systems are unique and designed to the specific requirements of each user. 

“If someone is trying to sell you a one-size-fits-all type of product without taking into account your site geography, layout and specific requirements then look around because there are also plenty of highly professional operators who can help you.”

The biggest question for most farmers when it comes to assessing a new energy-generation system is will it work? The problem is they won’t know unless they try it, as dairy farmer Kay Smith is well aware.

“Will it work? That’s a question I ask myself every day,” said Kay of her forthcoming solar-powered robotic dairy. “We have had to immerse ourselves in looking at all sorts of things I didn’t know anything about – cooling types, pumps, variable speed motors, technological design for roofing and roof space. I’d never heard of some of those things before.

“All we could do is look at the facts coolly and critically to assess whether we think it will work. And we do. We have looked at all the scientific and technological data, assessed it, questioned it and then talked about it some more.

“But are we absolutely sure that the solar-powered robotic dairy will work? At the end of the day, the only answer is that it has to. 
Ensuring sustainability for the future of the farming sector 

“The projections that we have, show that adding this facility to our farm will ensure its sustainability into the future. We have installed a 10,000-litre glycol cooling system that features energy load sharing and chills during the day, but circulates for 24 hours. Our payback period is at three to four years.

“We know the task of successfully making changes such as the ones we envisage is huge. We have learnt it takes a lot of courage to make changes, even when the evidence is right in front of you in black and white. Most importantly, we would do it again.

“I believe that we must continue to change and adapt in order to survive,” Kay added. “I go back to Charles Darwin who said it is not always the strongest nor the most intelligent that survives and succeeds – it is the most adaptable to change.”  

Emissions down and sales up for Australian winemakers 
Going carbon neutral is a win-win for a Hunter winery. Alisdair Tulloch is a fifth-generation winemaker from the Pokolbin area, where his family operate Keith Tulloch Wine. It is the first certified carbon-neutral winery in the Hunter Valley.

The operation runs 20 hectares of vineyards and also takes fruit from another 50ha. One of business’s biggest expenses each year is the electricity bill, using 200,000 kilowatt hours for a cost of about $30,000.

Keith Tulloch and son Alisdair toast success at their carbon-neutral winery. Source: Fairfax Media. 

“There’s a lot of processing of the fruit and refrigeration and, as a consequence, I did a carbon footprint review for 2017-18 and realised our emissions totalled 660 tonnes of CO2,” Alisdair told the conference.

RELATED: Port Macquarie winemaking family finds export markets fruitful

His review led to a 10-year plan to reduce emissions as much as possible. “Where we can’t use current technologies to do that – we still have to run our tractors and get product to ships for export – then we plan to offset that with on-farm carbon sequestration or off-farm with the planting of trees if necessary.”

The winery installed solar panels last year. “That provides about 72% of our power now and gives us a saving of about $25,000 annually. It also reduces our emissions by about 100 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions. Our excess power is sold back to the grid and that helps pay off the system.”

Most importantly, the Tullochs have done as much as they can to use electricity in their processing. For example, instead of using LPG to power their forklifts, they use electricity and charge batteries during the day.

“We have a new energy-efficient refrigeration system and we program it to use most of the energy during the daylight hours,” Alisdair said. 
“So it’s not just about having solar, it’s about getting the best utility out of the system. Our set-up costs were about $10,000 for a 65-kilowatt photovoltaic system and the payback period will be 3.95 years.” 

What they couldn’t predict though were the benefits in the marketplace. 

“Having a carbon-neutral product to sell to customers has generated a huge amount of interest and a leap in media attention, with a 200% increase in sales to Sydney-based restaurants and bottle shops. Customers want products that are environmentally more sustainable.”

Enjoy this story? Want more in-depth news on farming in NSW? Members of NSW Farmers receive a free glossy magazine called The Farmer, direct to their letterbox, with exclusive news, views and deep analysis. Plus of course, you get all the benefits of being a member of the largest state farming organisation. Join here