Why solar stacks up for farmers

Published: November 2018 | By Fiona Myers

Making the switch to a solar-diesel hybrid pumping system has slashed this Central West NSW farmer’s fuel bills – and cut his greenhouse emissions to boot.

Jon Elder and his solar irrigation systems
Narromine grower Jon Elder with the 500kW solar array he has installed on his farm.

SUNSHINE has always been vital to life on the land and now it’s helping to power farms more than ever before. Narromine farmer Jon Elder turned on Australia’s largest solar diesel hybrid pumping system in September, slashing energy costs and emissions, while improving the drought resilience of his family farm in Central West NSW.

“We’re a mix of irrigated and dryland cropping, and diesel is our biggest expense because of our irrigation bores.”

 “But there’s other bottom-line benefits, too. We’re less exposed to diesel price fluctuations, we generate an income from the sale of large-scale generation certificates [based on renewable energy produced and usually sold to electricity retailers] and our investment is 100% tax deductible in year one.”


While his decision to install the solar-powered pump was based on dollars, Jon says it has also cut greenhouse emissions by 500 tonnes a year – the amount produced by about 75 Australian households. He is one of an increasing number of farmers looking hard at their electricity or diesel pumping bills and finding solar is stacking up.

Jon with daughter, Noa
Jon with daughter Noa during a farm milestone – water pumping powered by the sun. Photos supplied by ReAqua. 

That wasn’t always the case according to NSW Farmers energy innovation manager Llewelyn Owens, whose background as an electrical engineer before joining NSW Farmers included work in the mining industry. 
“At one stage it was cheaper to buy energy off the grid than to install a solar power system,” he says.

“There has been a drastic reduction in the cost of solar technology, something in the order of 200-300%. We look at figures that show it delivers a return on investment from year one, and will pay for itself within five to 10 years.”


Now farmers are not only considering solar, they are also thinking about how they can use the power they generate in the most effective way. Many are just waiting for an incentive to join the move to solar.
“More and more, farmers are making business decisions to install solar to offset electricity costs because the figures stack up,” says Llewelyn Owens. 

 “I see a bigger advantage for the use of renewable energy in agriculture than in any other industry.”

The move to solar has largely been sparked by traditional energy price rises with lifts in the costs of both electricity from the grid and diesel, the traditional energy sources used to power pumps for irrigation. Yet it is not necessarily a choice between solar and electricity/diesel says NSW Farmers’ general manager – research and innovation David Eyre.

“Going off grid is a viable option for some farmers and remote rural communities,” David says. “But in many cases, hybrid models implemented in collaboration with distributors make more economic sense.” 

While on-farm solar pumping can offer cost savings to individual farmers, David says it may not be the greatest win for irrigation districts. “For example, under a regional electricity demand management plan, a distributor might collaborate with industry to build a solar power station to supply local peak load in peak pumping season,” he says. 

Aerial shot of solar panels in rural NSW
The opening ceremony for the solar system on Jon Elder’s Narromine farm drew a crowd. Photos supplied by ReAqua.  

NSW Farmers is working with Essential Energy and the NSW Irrigators’ Council, the peak body representing irrigation farmers across the state, to do exactly that. A project funded by the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) will investigate the possibility of a major irrigation company in the state using solar to transport water to farms. 

RELATED:  Coleambally community’s world first irrigation system 

The ultimate, David says, would be piping bulk water distribution networks, a system that requires greater energy due to increased pressure and friction, but would decrease water losses seen in open-channel systems.

Currently, comprehensive piping solutions are not viable due to high energy costs, but if irrigation companies were able to generate affordable solar power, the equation could change dramatically. The energy companies are interested, David says, because the peak electricity demands for irrigation pumping come at the same time as peak demands from the community during summer. Load shedding by powering some of the irrigation pumping needs with solar energy would take the pressure off an increasingly stretched system. 
“There are many scenarios for achieving least-cost electricity supply, which need to be identified on a geographic and structural basis,” David Eyre says.

While initially solar generation technology costs were a barrier, other factors are now the impediment. “Policy, not technology, is the main barrier to this kind of innovation,” David says. 
“Current state and federal energy policy tends to focus on urban and heavy industry electricity supply and miss the special challenges and opportunities that exist outside the major load centres.”


In the meantime, for farmers considering installing a solar or hybrid pumping system, David says consultation with an electrician is vital. He also advises farmers to use a checklist to see if the system stacks up for them. See NSW Farmers’ solar pumping checklist HERE.
While there is not a specified scheme backing solar farming, farmers interested in solar pumping could be eligible for assistance from broader schemes. 

The NSW Farm Innovation Fund offers low-interest loans of up to $250,000 per project to help carry out permanent works that have significant long-term benefits and mitigate adverse seasonal conditions. A NSW DPI spokesperson says this includes the construction and installation of solar pumping facilities.  

There’s probably no better example of the rapidly changing world of solar pumping than Gunnedah cotton and grain grower Scott Morgan, who grows cotton, wheat and other grain on his 730-hectare Liverpool Plains property in North West NSW. 
About five years ago his reliance on bore water, which requires a lot of energy to lift, got Scott – who is also an electrician – thinking about ways to save energy.

As a result, he installed a travelling irrigator fed by a two-kilometre pipeline, which eliminated the need for two lift pumps, and installed 160 solar panels to power the remaining lift pump. Scott was so impressed with the results that he installed a new system this year, based on the savings he will make, rather than relying on income from selling back to the grid, to offset the outlay. 

He has installed a solar tracking system with 300 330-watt panels, covering about 1,750sqm.
“If there’s one thing Gunnedah has in abundance, it’s sunlight. That’s one reason why installing solar panels made economic sense,” Scott Morgan says.

The new panels, a type generally used by large solar energy generators, allow Scott to pump artesian water from 42m below the ground to his supply channels. The solar-powered pump provides enough energy to supply 6.4 megalitres a day. 

The water is delivered into channels, where it is held before being used by the lateral irrigator to water 435ha of cereal and cotton crops.

By maximising the use of the solar energy generated, Scott says he expects his solar system to pay for itself within four to five years. That wouldn’t be the case for everyone, he says, as his electrical background allowed him to do much of the installation work himself with the help of farm staff. 

Already, he estimates he has saved 47% on his energy bills and in years like this with high water demand from crops and no rain, the savings are huge. 
“It’s all privately funded and it’s something we did the numbers on and it is viable because the cost of the panels and technology has come down so much,” he says.

 READ how a Riverina pig farmer is helping to save money and the planet by turning animal waste into energy: “The power of pig poo”.

solar pump irrigation in cultivation
Source: Getty Images


- Pump many months of the year and mostly during the day.

- Do not necessarily need to be grid-connected.

- Can use solar to load shift and lower network charges.

- Have substantial and efficient water storage.

- Can join a community solar project, sharing costs and power.

Source: Solar Powered Pumping – Irrigation Solutions by NSW Farmers and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, 2015.


The stars have aligned for solar pumping and it’s creating a surge of interest from farmers. Solar technology prices have come down at the same time as the cost of electricity and diesel have spiked.
It means companies are seeing more and more customers asking for quotes to see how the figures stack up.

Warrego Water’s Mark Green says he’s been involved in the water industry for six years and, at the start, solar was simply too expensive for most people to consider.
“A solar panel system to service 100 cattle might have cost $28,000, but now you can get a system for half that price,” Mark says.

In the past few years, the cost of a 250-watt solar panel has slipped from $500-$600 down to about $250, which works out to about $1/watt. While the majority of sales are to stock farmers who turn to solar for cost advantages, the number of irrigators looking to the sun to subsidise their pumping costs is growing.

Mark says solar pumps may not be able to supply all the energy needs for irrigating or lifting water to a storage dam or channel, but it could offset electricity or diesel bills. He says the greatest interest from irrigators is for blended systems, which can use solar power when available and switch to diesel or electricity when it is cloudy or at night.

“With centre pivot or lateral irrigators, you can’t afford to have them stop if it gets cloudy, so that’s when the blended systems come in,” Mark says.

“People are a lot more comfortable with solar because of its acceptance in domestic housing and that is also flowing through how farmers see it.” The increasing interest has seen Mark prepare five quotes in the past few months for irrigators, with systems costing between $250,000 and $1 million.

“The main thing with solar is the payback on the system,” Mark says. “The irrigators are telling me it will pay for itself in four or five years.”  

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