Narromine cotton, solar irrigation information day

Narromine is leading the way when it comes to solar irrigating for agriculture.

A number of farmers gathered at Soul Food, on March 13 for an information day about solar pumping for irrigators. 

The day featured presentations by food and fibre industry representatives, as well as farmers who have installed systems, and those with systems about to go online. The second half of the day was dedicated to residential battery storage.

Local cotton grower Jon Elder from Waverleigh – 35 kilometres south-west of Narromine –  spoke on the day discussing his 500kW solar pumping system, which is believed to be the largest in the state.

Mr Elder who grows 550-570 hectares of cotton each year said that diesel was his biggest cost, stating he uses in the vicinity of 350,000 litres of diesel to pump their water. 

Mr Elder has three diesel bores, and is replacing one of them with a diesel hybrid solar bore, which he believes will reduce costs. 

“We think that we will reduce our diesel usage by better than 55 per cent … that is 200,000 litres of diesel … saving us roughly $200,000.”

Mr Elder has completed stage one of the project replacing his current diesel engine which drives the turbine bore, with an electric motor powered by a diesel electric generator, paving the way for stage two of the project, which is to install a one hectare solar array.

“When the sun’s up ... solar power feeds that electric power, when the sun goes down the diesel motor generator kicks in automatically generating electricity powering the electric motor at night.”

“The first stage is running at 1600 hours and we expect the second stage to go just as well.”

“We intend to use the power of the sun for 12 months of the year to access our water licence.” 

Ben Lee, Managing director of ReAqua – the company that is responsible for installing Mr Elder’s system said they are excited by the opportunities.

“We're really excited to have Jon’s system up and running in the next few months and take people and show them what’s possible, and basically give farmers an option that there's someone out there with a solution to their problem.”

“It’s a new form of technology and a new field so there’s not a great number of suppliers out there.”

Mr Lee said that a key barrier for farmers is, “every man and his dog can sell solar” but putting it into a pumping and irrigation system is something quite different to installing solar panels on a roof to reduce power bills. 

At the information day Mr Lee discussed the applications that are suitable, and the questions farmers should ask before converting to a solar hybrid system. 

“The key question to consider is how many days that their pump is running a year, so they're looking at the payback, the more you pump the quicker you payback because your replacing more diesel costs.”

“Other things we highlight and have farmers think about is weather they can modify their irrigation practices to lengthen their pumping period, so that could mean for example a cotton farmer increases the size of his storage dam.

“Jon Elder is a good example of that, he did that and it makes financial sense, so that's going to allow him to basically spend all year filling that storage dam, to then utilise in the summer periods when he's got his cotton.

“His pumps are going to run for 9 months of the year for free, filling that dam, so that's going to save him $200,000 a year by doing that.

“So the longer you pump the better, so [the question is] can you modify your irrigation system to allow you to pump for a bit longer,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee said that among ReAqua and the other pumping and irrigation businesses they own, they incorporate hundreds of years of pumping experience, and again hundreds of years of solar experience that are married together. 

Mr Lee believes that farmers interest in solar pumping is on the rise and in the next two years will see a dramatic increase in these systems. 

“There are a long list of people who have said to us well 'once I can go and see Jon’s, I want one'.”

“No one expects energy prices are going to go down in the future, and farmers have to look for an alternative and if you can put something in that’s going to save you - in Jon’s case $200,000 a year and pay itself off in four or five years then from a farmers perspective that’s a pretty good investment.

He believes these systems should last for over 20 years, and said, “So after four years you’re putting an extra $200,000 in your pocket, is a bit of a no brainer, but the key barrier is there’s not enough people out there who know what they’re doing.”

“You’re no longer at the whim of the electricity companies, and you’re no longer at the whim of your diesel provider.

“You’re gearing up for a truck of diesel today, but the price is different tomorrow, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“So if you can control your biggest costs in any enterprise, that makes a massive difference to the whole operation and you've got that certainty of supply.

“This gives you control over your cost, gives you independence, you’re not reliant on the grid,” Mr Lee said.