Gippsland farmer Lindsay Anderson uses a helluva lot of power. With the rising cost of electricity, bills for his dairy operation in not-so-sunny south-eastern Victoria were amounting to tens of thousands of dollars annually – until Anderson upgraded to on-farm renewables.
A couple of years ago, Anderson outlaid a hefty $60,000 installing nearly 150 solar photovoltaic panels around his farm at Athlone, in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges – an investment that to some might seem like overcapitalising.
To Anderson, a former SEC engineer who helped construct Loy Yang A and design Loy Yang B power station, installing a solar PV system seemed like a sound financial move.
With electricity prices rising and an energy-hungry robotic dairy and chilling vat running seven days a week, the farm’s power bills were tens of thousands of dollars annually, eating into Anderson’s bottom line.
But without the guaranteed hours and days of sunshine that a comparable setup in say, Queensland or central Australia might afford, would the energy output, even from all those panels, be sufficient to offset his grid-power bills?
Anderson’s solution was costlier than installing solar photovoltaic arrays alone but guaranteed that his initial 24-panel array, sited in a cow paddock, would make optimal use of any sun that did shine.
He set the array on a tracking system that enables the panels to re-orient according to the sun, maximising the amount of solar energy they can capture over the course of a day. According to Anderson, tracking the sun boosted the solar-energy output of the array by 25-30 percent.
“It was about reducing my farm's (power) bill. This was pure economics, about how to go about putting in solar and making a dollar out of it or reducing my costs,” Anderson told The Australian Dairy Farmer in early 2017.
He said he was pleased with how the paddock array, the first solar PV he’d installed on the property, had performed so far.
“They're paid off and I'm making money,” he said of the system, which cost Anderson about $22,800 and was designed to export power to the grid.
The sun-tracking solar-PV system generates around 8,500 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, Anderson said. Most of it is currently fed back into the grid; however, this may change in coming years.
With the feed-in tariff cut, the imminent closure of Hazelwood power station threatening to force grid-electricity prices higher, and solar battery storage banks becoming more efficient and financially viable, the option to take his operation off-grid altogether may look increasingly attractive in coming years – and Anderson is well positioned to do just that.
Meanwhile, by reducing the farm’s annual power bill to under $1,000, the upgrade to renewables should pay for itself after just a few years.
It’s certainly food for thought.
To find out more about energy-efficient dairy operations, visit the Reducing Energy Costs in Dairy project section on AgInnovators.