Farmers and solar: agriculture's sunny future

Farmers and solar: agriculture’s sunny future

I became interested in community engagement programs based around environmental behaviours after studying Environmental Science and Sustainable Development at university. I first worked for government in WA, then moved to the UK and worked for Transport for London on their pioneering cycle hire scheme, and then on the London 2012 Olympics, which was fantastic.

But my partner, who I had met in Perth, grew up on a farm in NSW’s central west. We decided to come back so he could manage the family farm and we could raise a child here.

Yes, it was a big change moving from London to Narromine.

At the time, 11 years ago, I knew very little about farming or agriculture. But I soon realised there was a strong interest from farmers wanting to understand how renewables could help cut their costs, particularly technology like solar irrigation. I ran a couple of workshops when it was all still theoretical, and we got 50 to 60 farmers attending – which was pretty amazing, as it can be quite hard to get farmers to give up a day’s work.

There was a strong interest from farmers wanting to understand how renewables could help cut their costs.

Then we organised a field trip to a property where the farmer had put in a 100-kilowatt solar-diesel irrigation pump. About 100 people attended and it was great to see the change in such a short period from theoretical to demonstration site.

My partner and I were as impressed as anyone, and we ended up putting in the country’s largest off-grid solar-diesel irrigation pump on our farm, back in 2018. With the price of solar dropping significantly, the business case was strong, and it promised to be a massive step forward for irrigated agriculture.

It had a five-year payback and saved about 180,000 litres of diesel for the pumping that we do every summer irrigating our crops, cutting 500 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. There’s been quite a lot of excitement in our project.

Though there have been some wrinkles. The first year went really well, but we’ve started having issues with the blending of solar and diesel at the scale that we’re doing it. But that’s okay – we’re early adopters, and we’re taking those early risks. We still don’t quite have a solution, but it’s these lessons that are really important to progress the rest of the industry, so others can learn from us.

We’re early adopters, and we’re taking those early risks.

The level of interest prompted me to found the National Renewables in Agriculture Conference, which we first held in Wagga Wagga in 2019 so that we could share our story with other farmers. We got a great range of farmers to attend, along with all the peak bodies, plus government and industry reps. These have become annual events – the next one is coming up in June in Dubbo. Ross Garnaut will be our keynote speaker, we’ve got some really interesting farmers doing some great things, and some experts talking about what’s on the horizon for farming.

The “next big thing” is this country’s large-scale energy transition to renewables, and the farmers’ role in that transition. Could they be hosting more small-scale renewables and putting into the grid locally, or selling to the neighbours? All these types of questions will be asked and answered at the conference.

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We will also tour a solar farm on the edge of Dubbo that grazes sheep under solar panels. This practice is termed agrivoltaics, and it’s something I’m really passionate about – the combination of agriculture with energy generation on the same land. It’s a real win-win.

Climate change is making it harder to farm, so it’s important that where solar is installed on a large scale, which is generally on agricultural land, that we continue to farm that land if we are to keep producing food for the world.

The “next big thing” is this country’s large-scale energy transition to renewables, and the farmers’ role in that transition.

At the moment, there are massive solar and wind developers rolling out projects around the country. We definitely need these projects to make up for the coal-fired power stations that are retiring over the next 10 to 15 years, but I can see a bigger role for farmers if they’re able to be supported to put in smaller systems – maybe five megawatts, which might need 10 hectares of land.

They could put agrivoltaics over their crops – transparent solar panels now allow light to penetrate to the crops, and partial shade can be a positive thing. You’re protecting your crops from frost and from heat, and there’s usually higher soil moisture because of the shade they provide, which means less water needed for irrigation. And, of course, they’re generating energy.

There’s lots of different models that can be used, but that power exporting to the grid could then be sold locally to communities or become part of the national energy market.

Climate change is making it harder to farm, so it’s important that we continue to farm that land when solar is installed.

Agrivoltaics is something that we can definitely progress more in Australia. It can be combined with crops like green leafy veg or horticultural crops like berries, tomatoes, basil and potatoes. Countries like Germany and Japan are quite advanced in combining energy and food production in this way, because they’ve had to.

There’s another important advantage. By using that land productively, it increases the social licence for the large-scale developments that are being rolled out, because people can see that land is still being used for agriculture.

There are lots of exciting ways it can work. By integrating our thinking more around food and energy, we can definitely do things better.

As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.

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