Barriers to on-farm solar PV installation

Barriers to on-farm solar PV installation

Despite the fact that farmers are increasingly investing in renewable energy, they continue to face a number of challenges when it comes to the connection, installation and integration of on-farm solar PV. Policy and regulatory options need to be addressed to improve the network connection process, according to a new research project.

More farmers are adopting renewable energy solutions to manage unsustainable electricity prices, offset unavoidable peak demand charges and to decarbonise the ‘energy mix’.

CEFC1 data shows a progressive commitment among Australian farmers to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. In the last three years, farmers have taken up loan incentives offered by the CEFC, spending over $100 million on 417 on-grid and 20 off-grid solar power projects, more than any other single sector. These projects were also on average larger than other sectors, with loans almost seven times the average at over $250,000. Moreover, farmers took additional loans with the CEFC to the value of $100 million during this time to improve the energy efficiency of farm buildings and production systems.

Despite the growing adoption of renewable energy, particularly solar, farmers continue to experience a number of barriers. Funded by Energy Consumers Australia (ECA), Cotton Australia, the Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) and the NSW Irrigators’ Council (NSWIC) recently conducted a research project titled ‘Irrigators – the flow on benefits of regionally embedded generation’ which sought to:

  • identify the challenges experienced by growers who have installed (or were planning to install) solar energy on-farm with the intention to feed excess energy back into the electricity grid;
  • analyse network connection application processes and the associated barriers that limit growers from feeding on-farm generated solar energy back into the electricity grid;
  • assess the previous amendments to NER (Chapter 5A) to determine if it had improved the connection process for solar PV generators under 5 MW to connect to the electricity grid.

Growers in New South Wales and Queensland identified a range of barriers and challenges with the planning, design, installation and connection of on-farm solar PV systems across three main categories: technology, economic and information. The project found that although some of these challenges exist due to the complexity of the network connection process, there was a lack of expertise which prevented farmers from effectively engaging with the network companies. Growers were also unable to scrutinise the advice of the solar PV supplier or installer, who often does not have the required knowledge of the farming systems and technologies which the solar is powering.

One of the case studies visited during the research was the solar PV project ‘Adapting Renewable Energy Concepts to Irrigated Sugar Cane Production at Bundaberg’, led by the Bundaberg Regional Irrigators Group (BRIG), with the funding support of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). The aim of the project was to reduce irrigators’ dependence on grid-supplied electricity through the installation of a large-scale solar PV system capable of delivering a comparable irrigation supply to the established distribution system. The project faced challenges and delays due to a number of compliance issues with new equipment and the grid connection standard. In particular, the grid connection specifications for all inverters and similar technologies to AS/NZ4777.2: 2015 Grid connection of energy systems via inverters impeded the installation and operation of the solar PV system which utilised innovative ‘inverter-like’ technology.

Another case study in New South Wales only found out after completion of the project that the network business would only approve export of 50% of the system’s capacity back to the grid without a detailed explanation about the decision.

The project undertaken by Cotton Australia, NSWIC and QFF suggests change is required to realise untapped opportunities, including streamlining the connection process and improving the information flow between the network business, solar installers and growers.

Australian growers continue to see opportunities in the renewable energy sector — all that is needed now is for the regulatory and policy setting to be an enabler and not a constrainer.

  1. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) is responsible for investing $10 billion in clean energy projects on behalf of the Australian Government to assist with lowering Australia’s carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low emissions technologies.

Image credit: © Oates

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