Glenn Melton Xirasol co-founder
Glenn Melton, Xirasol co-founder

OXYGEN FILES: There’s a battle brewing in the bush not only around water – or lack thereof – but around solar, and whether it has any business taking over farmland.

Some of the solar providers at last week’s Henty Machinery Field Days told The Fifth Estate feelings are running so high they avoided mentioning commercial-scale solar to anyone stopping by their stall at the event.

Farmers told stall owners how upset they were with some of the plans for large-scale solar farms in the Riverina and Murray regions.

However, smaller-scale solar installations that help reduce farm running costs are proving popular. As the drought blasts bottom-lines, cutting operating costs is a no-brainer.

Glenn Melton, co-founder of Xirasol, a company that has designed and is manufacturing a dual-axis tracking solar system, entered the innovation in the Field Days’ Machinery of the Year competition.

It didn’t get a guernsey, but Melton told The Fifth Estate he expects to see the product used for large-scale deployments, next year.

Not that he is talking up commercial-scale use with the general public. Instead, he’s focusing on its application for on-farm energy supplies for dairies, wineries, irrigators and manufacturers.

The design minimises the civil works and land required for installation, he explains. A 100kW array can be installed onsite by just two workers in a week. It is packaged up as cubic modules that can be trucked to site.

The height of the array can be adjusted to allow for grazing underneath the panels, and the bi-facial panel design, which is combined with a tracking mechanism, means energy is generated for more hours each day than a conventional fixed, single-sided panel.

The company is backed by an Australian venture capital investor (whose identity hasn’t been disclosed), and it uses mostly Australian steel for the frames and supports. The equipment in the factory includes robots purchased and repurposed from a Ford plant that closed down in Victoria.

“This array can bring down the cost of large-scale solar by 30 per cent, and it will take 20 per cent less labour to install,” says Melton. 

Energy savings

Another business that was seeing strong interest was energy-efficiency specialist Middy’s. Representative Tony Turnbull told The Fifth Estate he was getting plenty of inquiries from farmers keen to cut their power bills.

Thanks to state government programs in Victoria, NSW and the ACT, the company is able to provide a package that includes audit and upgrades for no upfront capital.

Turnbull says Westpac will also fund 100 per cent of an upgrade via a loan because it recognises the bankable nature of the proposition. Repayments come from bill savings.

Middy’s services and products within a standard efficiency offer include LED lighting, solar PV, power factor correction units, energy monitoring and voltage optimisation. Turnbull says the voltage optimisation is especially popular. The average project involving this type of package saves a farmer or business about 61 per cent in energy costs in the first year, and achieves payback in 3.7 years. 

“It is cash flow positive from day one,” he says.

Energy monitoring is also crucial and useful.

“A big part [of reducing energy use] is being able to monitor it and manage it.”

Solar Professionals had a bright, shiny Tesla Powerwall sitting in front of its stall. Company representative Shaun Joyce says the first thing they do is talk to people about their current energy use and about how they can shift their demand patterns to get the most value from a solar install without over-sizing their system.

It is still expensive for farmers to go off-grid, he says.

“But every year it gets a bit cheaper.”

Asked whether many customers were concerned about their carbon emissions, Joyce says that for most people, solar is a “cost-

cutting thing”.

“But it is starting to head that way [towards wanting to reduce emissions].”

The main point made by those objecting to large solar developments is that they are often built on prime agricultural land. As the ABC reported in May, the value of land for food and fibre production is regarded as more important than its potential to produce energy.

For their part, solar companies are attempting to obtain leases for land that already hosts or is close to existing Transgrid distribution infrastructure. This reduces the costs associated with getting energy from panels into the grid, and reduces the scale of infrastructure works.

It is worth noting that coal and coal seam gas (CSG) project operators are also targeting quality agricultural land – and leave a lasting mess behind. Unlike solar, coal and CSG proponents have greater status in law to override landholder objections, whereas offers from solar farm developers can be rejected by farmers.

Alternative approaches

But coal and CSG are not front of mind for many in the Riverina, even though there are active exploration licenses in the region. The focus is on the tug of war between broad acre crops and broad acre solar.

For some locals, the promise of an annual income that doesn’t depend on rainfall is a compelling proposition, even if it leads to social fallout.

The framing of the choices as an either/or proposition could be part of the problem.

There is an underlying presumption that farming isn’t compatible with solar because the scenario only pictures current, business-as-usual farming. In areas where large solar projects are planned, the dominant land use is usually broad acre cropping in the form of wheat, canola, barley, oats and lucerne, or cattle or sheep for meat and wool.

What’s missing is any discussion of alternative forms of farming, such as regenerative approaches or labour-intensive approaches.

Research and trials in Europe and North America have shown that there are forms of agriculture that are compatible with solar developments. Horticultural crops, native plants and bee-keeping have all been tested in new “agrivoltaic” approaches.

Researchers have found that solar panels reduce the impact of both frost and extreme heat, create a microclimate that reduces the need for watering, and improve the safety and comfort of farm workers by providing shade.

So, perhaps part of the stakeholder engagement that needs to be done to reconcile opponents of solar farms with commercial-

Josef Meier and Gemma Meier

scale projects is to investigate how landowners can be supported to shift their activities into compatible forms of food and fibre production.

It is glaringly obvious something needs to be done to provide meaningful and effective assistance to boost the climate resilience of our rural communities.

Watching how the impacts of drought play out in terms of who is buying what at the Field Days was a good illustration of just how tough times are. Many visitors to the event were wandering around almost empty-handed. In previous years, they would have been loaded up with purchases – everything from tools and garden ornaments to hats and saddlecloths.

A local source said the overall takings for many of the small businesses that operate pop-up shops at the event were “dismal”. Rural people just don’t have cash for non-essential purchases.

The impact of a prolonged drought on the rural community in terms of mental health was clear, with numerous stalls offering mental health support, suicide prevention and community assistance programs.

In the light of all those issues, it is perhaps understandable that the threat posed by the climate crisis is too much for many people in rural communities to contemplate.

Some people have made the link between climate change and farm viability, and some of them were on the streets in Wagga Wagga for the 20 September Climate Strike.

Grong Grong farmer Gemma Meier told The Fifth Estate she thinks there will be conflicts over access to water and productive land if climate change is not addressed. She worries about her future, and what will be left for her son Josef to inherit.

“He’s not old enough to vote so I thought it was fair he could miss school and be here today and have his say,” she says.

Farmers opposed to solar power are also saying they are worried about the future, and whether their children will have viable working lives in the agricultural sector.

There are no easy answers. Perhaps, when it comes to how we manage farmland, we need to be asking better questions.

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  1. There are no easy answers. Perhaps, when it comes to how we manage farmland, we need to be asking better questions…..We have allowed urban sprawl to cover some of the best agriculture land, miners to stuff a lot more surely solar can be located in non productive land?