Solar and sheep: Farmers say they want renewables to boost income, cut costs

Farmers are keen to send the message that the linkages between the agricultural and renewable energy sectors have the potential to be mutually beneficial for both, as the two industries are set to meet to share experiences and opportunities to work together.

Farmers and project developers alike are set to meet for the National Renewables in Agriculture Conference to be held in Dubbo next month.

Conference founder, Karin Stark, said including renewable energy projects on farmland was becoming an increasingly attractive way for farmers to reduce their costs and potentially help diversify income streams.

“Renewable energy is a practical way for farmers to significantly reduce their costs, reduce their exposure to energy price fluctuations and build business resilience,” Stark said.

“It’s important for farmers to be able to get together and share their stories and also their challenges and mistakes so that others can learn from them.”

Stark added that the conference would help break down some of the knowledge barriers when it comes to integrating renewable energy with farming operations.

“The National Renewables in Agriculture Conference is designed to overcoming the barriers to the uptake of renewable energy by farmers. There is a gap in the knowledge and understanding of what renewable energy solutions work for what farming operations plus there is a general lack of trust in solar suppliers, which constrains investment,” Stark said.

The addition of renewable energy projects with farming operations can prove to be highly complementary, with access to land with high solar and wind availability, potentially useable for both continued agricultural use while allowing for the generation of zero emissions electricity.

A recent report published by the Clean Energy Council detailed the potential co-benefits of pairing farms with solar projects.

Sheep farmer Tom Warren hosts a 20MW solar farm on his property in Dubbo and said that the project had only been a net benefit to the farm and is able to graze sheep amongst the solar panels.

“Hosting a 20 MW solar farm was a great opportunity for me, to supplement my agricultural income,” Warren said.

“I was very keen from the outset that I would get the opportunity to graze my merino sheep beneath the panels, the company agreed and it’s been a win-win ever since.”

“There are no negative impacts at all from me hosting a solar farm on my land. The sheep keep the grass down, reducing the need to mow between panels, and the panels provide shade in summer and protection from the wind in winter.”

Sheep farmer, Tom Warren, at his property in Dubbo (supplied).
Sheep farmer, Tom Warren, at his property in Dubbo (supplied).

The agricultural sector accounts for around one-sixth of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and has had a complicated relationship with government policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Efforts have been undertaken to see the agricultural sector effectively excluded from emissions reduction targets, including through lobbying from Nationals MPs, who claim that the sector should be shielded from any potential costs or requirements to reduce emissions under a 2050 net zero target.

However, many within the agricultural sector itself have argued there are a huge amount of opportunities for the farming sector to contribute to cutting emissions, and as the experiences for those taking the AgriSolar path have shown, acting on climate change can be beneficial for farmers.

Narromine based cotton farmer Jon Elder said his farm provides an example of the role renewable energy can play in cutting both farm costs and emissions.

“We have installed a 500kW solar-diesel irrigation pump on our property, the largest of its kind in Australia, and expect the system to pay for itself in 5 – 6 years,” Elder said.

“Diesel was the highest cost on our farm, and was a real constraint on growth and a factor in our vulnerability to drought. The partial switch to solar powered pumping has been a game-changer for us.”

“Incorporating solar power also reduces our carbon dioxide emissions by about 500 tonnes each year, and we’re very proud of that,” Elder added. “As the world continues to grow in size and demand, I feel confident knowing that these technologies will move us and the agricultural sector, towards a more sustainable future.”

The second National Renewables in Agriculture Conference will be held in Dubbo in May.

Michael Mazengarb is a Sydney-based reporter with RenewEconomy, writing on climate change, clean energy, electric vehicles and politics. Before joining RenewEconomy, Michael worked in climate and energy policy for more than a decade.

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