Riverland farmers diversify with solar
Rural Australia has been hit by successive droughts and poor crop prices, with farmers struggling to earn a living. Many have been forced to abandon their farms and incomes. Local business owner Mark Yates of Yates Electrical Services, based in Paringa, South Australia, identified a potential solution. He was convinced that solar energy could make a significant contribution to the sustainability of farming.
Yates teamed up with ABB to bring sustainable renewable energy to the Riverland region and revitalise the local economy, bringing new opportunities to grape and citrus growers. The partnership is helping to harvest the sun’s rays and build a network of solar installations across Australia’s rural Riverland area.
“I was convinced that these redundant land parcels could be used economically with a solar plant to ensure constant energy harvest and profitability. With solar, not only can farmers significantly reduce their own energy costs, but they can also sell surplus power back to the local energy retailer, taking advantage of the volatility of the wholesale energy market,” said Yates.
As he sought to build support for his innovative approach, Yates called on solar experts from ABB, knowing that the company’s experience and technical support would help win the confidence of the farmers.
Adrian Amato from ABB Australia said, “We saw the opportunity to partner with Yates Electrical to put power back into the hands of the farming community and transform unused farming land, which was once dominated by fertile vineyards and citrus trees, into a powerful income stream.”
The first solar farms were installed in the Riverland in 2016 using six 27 kW ABB TRIO inverters, housed in an on-site containerised solution. This was later reconfigured to take advantage of the versatility and durability of ABB TRIO-50 inverters. The project’s first prototype site, based in Renmark, South Australia, went live in March 2016. Based on calculations from data provided by AEMO (Australian Energy Market Operator), Yates Electrical Services forecasted a 10% ROI year on year. The first year of operation for the site resulted in a 14.75% ROI.
The success of the first installation inspired an innovative community solar project called Redmud Green Energy, which involves building small-scale solar farms on vacant, redundant agricultural land parcels.
“We wanted to offer land owners the opportunity to take advantage of South Australia’s volatile wholesale energy market,” said Yates.
“A project like this not only introduces an entirely new industry and commodity to our regional centre, but the scale of individual projects also means that we are able to source and employ technicians and supplies, which creates local jobs and strengthens our regional economy.”
To date, 28 solar farms have been installed, with 34 additional sites earmarked for development as more farmers in the region make the move to solar energy in their quest for sustainability. The projects were designed and built with the TRIO-50 three-phase string inverters from ABB. Their modular design and wide input voltage range for maximum flexibility, as well as reduced installation and maintenance costs, are an ideal fit for these projects.
By selling energy to the National Electricity Market (NEM), farmers now have a second income stream, which in turn generates a stronger local economy.
Working together, Yates Electrical and ABB have handed power back to the region’s food producers, who are diversifying to succeed. One of Redmud Green Energy’s first customers was local citrus and grape grower Sam Albanese, who replaced a block of under-producing vines with a solar farm. The solar farm earned Albanese a 15% return on investment and cut his power bill by one-third. Unlike vineyards, the solar farm requires very little maintenance, and Albanese has recently completed the installation of a second solar farm on another of his properties.
“Unlike vineyards, which require lots of care and attention, with the solar farm you don’t need to do anything but occasionally spray the weeds around it. It makes good economic sense and it’s good for the environment, so it’s a win-win,” said Albanese.
The Redmud Green Energy project is successfully revitalising the Riverland of Australia, with plans to develop further projects in the region.
“Farming the sun’s rays is a powerful new way for farmers to diversify. It’s about using the land in different ways to deliver the best possible return that is kind to the environment and can revitalise the local economy. We’ve seen the fruits of this with the Yates project in Australia in what is set to be a clear trend for the future,” said Amato.
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