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  • 1 Solar energy 2 The Weekly Times, February 20, 2013

Milking power savings

When farmers sank bores and hoisted windmills so they could pump water to stock troughs, they were taking advantage of the natural energy available.

Now, with far more sophisticated energy generation equipment and the high Australian dollar bringing down the cost of many of the European, US and Chinesemade components, solar, hydro and wind energy are compelling choices. For northern Victorian dairy farming couple Laurie and Gayle Clark, the switch to solar has provided a surprising boost, reducing costs and changing the way they use power.

The Clarks run a herd of 300 milkers on their 64ha property at Katandra West, near Shepparton, and agist 250 young stock elsewhere. Since moving to the farm from Tungamah in 1998, they have lifted herd numbers from 135 cows, swapped an eight-aside swingover to a 48-unit rotary, lasered the entire place and built a 110m-long feed pad.

‘‘We went from 215 small pipe outlets to 21 bay-flap outlets, giving us greater water control, reducing labour and increasing the efficiency of growing feed,’’ Mr Clark said. Their program of improvements has now been crowned by the purchase November 2012 of a 30kW Hareon Solar system with three inverters and 117 panels. Since then, the system has generated a total of 15,600kWh till Feb 2013.

‘‘We have two other systems in place on the calf shed, totalling 2.5kW, for extra power,’’ Mr Clark said. ‘‘We built the dairy six years ago as a 20 to 40-year investment and when you look at it that way, solar fits really well.

‘‘ The payback will be something like eight years and should bring the overall cost of the dairy project down by 10 per cent,’’ he said. Financial incentives or not, it’s still a viable investment.

‘‘With minimal maintenance, we’d hope to get 40 years out of it,’’ Mr Clark said. ‘‘In the dairy, we’d use just under 40,000kWh per quarter over the summer, with milking, milling grain and irrigation.

‘‘We should all be looking at ways to improve our ecocredentials—and work out financially as well,’’ he said.

Mrs Clark said because dairy prices are not in a happy place, the impetus was the continued savings, plus decreasing their environmental footprint. ‘‘The biggest challenge in dairying is the differential between feed prices and the milk price—what makes a year good is that margin,’’ Mrs Clark said. ‘‘This is the tightest margin we’ve seen in 15 years at about eight cents.’’

Why 30kW?

‘‘That was as much as we could fit on the roof,’’ Mr Clark said. ‘‘On our better days, we produce about 210kWh. ‘‘On hotter days, it doesn’t produce as well as on more temperate days. Under 30C it will produce a lot more power than it does at 45C. ‘‘Our electrician has suggested running micro sprinklers to keep it cool and increase its efficiency. ‘‘We pay 7.8c for our offpeak power, but ours goes back into the grid at 8c, if it gets there,’’ he said. ‘‘In the past, our power bills have been between $6000 and $8000 a quarter. ‘‘When we milk during the afternoon, it probably provides about two-thirds of our power.’’

The arrival of the system has prompted a change of work practice, with day-time work now the norm. ‘‘It changes the way you use power,’’ Mr Clark said. ‘‘We don’t run the roller mill at night any more. Do it in the day and you can be there to supervise and get your power off the solar. ‘‘What we used to run at night—the hot water service and irrigation—can now be done any time. ‘‘At eight cents, it’s like you’re on off-peak all day. ‘‘We expect this will cut our power bill by about half. ‘‘At some point, people will start building new dairies again and, when that happens, I can see no reason why you wouldn’t put solar on,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a serious consideration.’’