Saturday, April 20, 2024

Farmers can get smart by using solar power

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Winter in Taranaki is probably not the best time to showcase the potential role for solar-generated electricity in farming systems but despite inclement weather the lights were on this week.
Project development director Andrew Beckett says the proposed Manawatū -based solar farm is “the first of many upcoming sites”.
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The outside temperature struggled to reach double digits and the overcast sky signalled another bout of showers on the way, but the little green light on the Smart meter at the Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station dairy shed showed enough sunlight was trickling through the clouds to generate electricity.

The installation, completed last week, is part of a new solar-power initiative being rolled out by Westpac and Meridian Energy.

The roof of the station dairy is patch-worked with 40 photovoltaic panels that feed through an inverter into a Smart meter. With no onsite storage such as batteries, any energy not consumed is fed back into the power grid, known as exporting.

The meter is so smart it allows a seamless meshing of solar electricity and imported power – no human input required.

Meridian pays export tariff rates for power exported into the grid, but these are lower than retail power rates. The best returns are made when farmers consume what they are producing.

KEY PLAYERS: From left, Westpac head of agribusiness Dave Jones, Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station board chairman Brendan Atrill, and Meridian Energy head of innovation and relationship management Hamish McEwen. Photo: Erin Hutchinson

“The payback is the best when you are not buying electricity, rather than when you are (net) producing it,” Meridian Energy head of innovation and relationship management Hamish McEwen said.

“Solar will generate when the sun comes out – it’s got a specific shape to it. The more that you can consume when it’s producing, the better the payback.”

One of the key aims of the initiative is to make solar power generation more accessible to farmers. The development of a turn-key-type installation, like the one at the station, keeps things simple.

Westpac is offering a special finance package to help smooth the way.

“The joint initiative has been designed to provide the customer with a return on their investment. We estimate the average break-even period to be around seven to eight years and expect the customer could potentially achieve electricity savings of more than $3000 per year,” Westpac agribusiness division head Dave Jones said.

The station system was installed for less than $30,000, with an estimated 25-year life span.

McEwen and Jones said their companies viewed the rollout as a great way to contribute to sustainability in the agricultural industry. Westpac’s long-term involvement with the station made the location a natural fit for a demonstration site.

Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station board chairman Brendan Atrill views the development as another step towards greater efficiency for the industry.“We are always looking to take great and make good on-farm solutions,” Atrill said.

“As the (dairy) industry gets larger it’s going to be more important that we try to have less impact on the country’s energy resources.”

Atrill was impressed at how quickly the onfarm installation progressed and was pleased that because of the Smart meter no electrical infrastructure needed to be altered – it was basically plug and play.

Information published by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority says on non-irrigated dairy farms nearly 90% of the energy used goes on refrigeration, pumps and water heating.

In the summer, when pumps and refrigeration units are working hard and daylight hours are long, solar power generation can offer significant rewards.

New Zealand dairy farmers already harvest sunlight through growing grass, and solar electricity offers another avenue.

The solar panel initiative will be launched at the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek this week.

Related story: Electricity farming to be launched

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