By DAVID McALPINE
As electricity prices continue to increase, dairy farmer Simon Garvey is thankful he invested in a solar panel and battery storage system to power his business.
“The power bills are going up. As far as the environment goes, it might actually be a blessing in disguise because it’s almost forcing people to look for alternative ways to source power,” he says.
Simon milks 170 cows on his 94 hectare (233-acre) property at Ripplebrook, 15 minutes’ drive south-west of Drouin in West Gippsland, overlooking a picturesque valley with Mt Baw Baw in the distance.
Centrally located between his dairy and other buildings, all of which flaunt roofs covered in glistening blue solar panels, is an inconspicuous white shipping container.
His two most valuable possessions are stored in the container, he says with a chuckle. One is an expensive portable camping fridge; the other is his array of buzzing electrical inverters and nine tonnes of lead-acid batteries.
Simon has good reason to be jolly, aside from his joke about his two most prized possessions being locked in this heavily insulated metal box.
Unlike many households and businesses currently rebalancing their budgets to cope with ever-increasing electricity prices, Simon is instead focusing on the repayments for his system.
“Even though I am losing money at the minute compared to what I was buying from the grid, in another couple of years I will own the system and then I will be making all the power for free,” he says.
In early 2015, he installed 240 solar panels and three experimental small-scale wind turbines, totalling 60kW in output, which charge the lead-acid battery storage system in his shipping container.
For comparison, a typical entry-level domestic unit creates 2-5kW.
Although Simon uses some night-rate power to heat water and is still reliant on the grid to supplement about half of his dairy’s power requirements during the darkest winter months, his business is largely powered by renewable energy.
“Once you get to mid-September, you never use the grid because you’ve reached the Spring equinox and there’s just too many sunny days,” he says.
His initial motivation to install the system was his passion for the environment and reducing his reliance on fossil-fuelled energy, although Simon soon realised that it would be financially beneficial.
“The way energy prices are going, it’s going to get to the point where it’s probably more efficient to make at least a portion of your own power,” he says.
Simon thinks the batteries are a worthwhile long-term investment, although he says farmers would still be justified in installing solar panels now and waiting for cheaper, more advanced battery technology expected on the market in the next few years.
“I’m really pleased with how it’s all gone. I would encourage farmers, especially if they’re building a new dairy, to think about it,” he says.
“I’ve had a lot of inquiries just from farmers that are keen to adopt this technology, it’s just that where milk prices are at the minute it makes it really difficult.”
“It doesn’t matter how idealistic you are, when it becomes financially viable, that’s when everyone jumps on board.”