By Kirra Grimes
WITH electricity prices increasing, local dairy farmers are looking to renewable energy to help bring down their bills.
One such farmer is Lindsay Anderson who uses a robot dairy to milk 200 Jerseys on his 160 hectare farm at Athlone.
Lindsay has three five-kilowatt solar panel systems feeding into the grid. He installed these systems in 2010, meaning he receives the premium feed-in tariff of 66 cents per kilowatt hour and earns around $1000 per quarter (a fourth five-kilowatt system feeds into the grid and earns some money but power from this system is also used internally). These systems paid for themselves in three years.
Lindsay’s robot dairy was installed in 2011, and he soon realised a conversion from single phase to three phase power was necessary. After experiencing power outages and fluctuations, and seeing an example of a micro grid system on a trip to Europe, in 2013 Lindsay started installing an off-grid system, which now includes a 10 (soon to be 15) kW solar panel system and a small wind turbine generating up to 1kW. Through three four-kilowatt inverters, this system (and some power supply from the grid) supplies three phase power to the robot dairy and also charges a bank of 16 lead carbon 20kW hour batteries, which ensures the robot can keep operating at full voltage for four hours in the case of a grid failure. When the batteries are fully charged, excess power can be used to run hot water or water chilling systems. The wind turbine was put in in 2015 as an experiment and Lindsay has been surprised how effective it’s been in an area where wind power was an “unknown”. He says the wind turbine paid for itself within two and a half years, and he’ll be installing three more turbines in the next six months.
Lindsay says 10 years ago his power bills were around $20,000 but he’s been in credit for power since 2012. But for Lindsay, who has an engineering background, it’s not all about saving money. His main concern is the poor quality and reliability of the state’s electricity supply, which he says is contributing to increasing grid failures and power quality issues such as brownouts, which not only interrupt milking but can burn out and ruin thousands of dollars’ worth of plant and equipment.
“A cow shed’s got a lot of electronics and if you need to replace things, a lot of it’s not readily available. I’ve got a friend who recently lost his whole shed and had a $40,000 bill due to a brown out. My neighbours have had five blackouts in the past month – they hadn’t had any for years,” he said.
He says generating capacity will also be a problem this summer due to the closure of Hazelwood. “You try to start things and they won’t go. It’s a big worry,” he said.
Lindsay urges other farmers to factor in these sorts of costs when deciding whether it’s worth investing in renewable energy systems such as solar.
“Power is going to go through the roof but quality and reliability is a big looming issue and it needs to be factored in more than it used to. Victoria is in trouble. We’ve got 10 coal fired power generating units in the Valley- if we lose one, that’s 10 per cent gone. And everything breaks. You service your car, you still have problems. This is no different. And the harder you use it the more likely it is to break. I can see what’s coming and it’s only going to get worse.”
He acknowledges that his setup isn’t necessarily suitable for most dairy farms, as his robot dairy operates 24/7, requiring a constant supply of power (an average load of 4kW and a peak load of 7kW) whereas most dairies need large amounts of power in the morning and afternoon, but he says farmers can still get benefits from installing a hybrid system including solar panels, batteries and inverters. “You might not be able to run all your equipment at the same time [using solar power] but you can run essential loads and cover yourself if the power goes out or power quality drops- you’ll still be able to milk. It gives security around power quality as well as saving money. Battery prices and panels are going down every year. It’s just a case of when to jump and go,” he says.
He says detailed analysis of power usage is essential before deciding what to buy. “Sales people will come in and tell you one thing based on looking at your power bill but they can’t know what’s suitable for your farm without digging into your records.”
After success with renewables, Lindsay plans to continue to add to his existing setup, either exporting more to the grid or adding more to his off grid system, depending on what’s going to be the most cost effective.
“I’ve got a foot in each camp at the moment so I can move either way without having to jump. My approach hasn’t changed in the last 20 years. It’s always been about offsetting peak costs and minimising demand on the grid in peak hours- moving the load from peak to off peak. The aim hasn’t changed but what’s most cost effective and feasible has changed. The premium feed in tariff will change in 2023 so we’ll see what happens.”
Other dairy farmers say there needs to be more incentive and government help for farmers looking to invest in alternative sources of energy.
Loch dairy farmer Jason Kirk says his latest power bill, for a 12 month period, was $60,000. He says power prices are a “strong burden” on his business and that prices are “going to get a lot worse before they get better” but without a subsidy on batteries, he doesn’t think it’s worth investing in solar panels.
“If you could store it [solar power] and if the cost benefit was there, we’d look into it but I don’t think it is there at the moment. Solar panels supply constant, slow, reliable power but dairies need big bursts of power for a couple of hours a couple of times a day. If the government subsidised batteries it would make it more affordable,” he said.
Andy Thomas looked into putting wind turbines on his Krowera dairy farm four years ago but found the cost prohibitively high and found that there were no government grants available. He’s since installed a 5kW solar panel system but says it hasn’t made much difference to his power bills, which he says have gone up at least a third in the last 18 months.
“There’s rebates for solar but nothing for wind. The government aren’t interested in the country. They look after households because you can put solar panels on houses in the city – but who’s going to put a wind turbine in the city? Unless it’s something city people can use, the government’s not interested,” he said.
The State Government recently announced an investment of $30 million to help Victoria’s farmers manage energy costs through improved efficiency and new technology, but Lindsay says consumers could be the solution to the current power crisis. “If it was opened up to consumers to compete in the retail energy market, then the government wouldn’t have to fund it. If we all installed systems and got $2 per kW hour, it’d be like putting a battery system across the state, without the government having to outlay one cent.”