036 | 100
Karin Stark
On-farm renewables

34 min 48 sec

Karin Stark focusses on ways to significantly reduce energy costs – one of the fastest-growing costs for farmers – and carbon emissions, by facilitating the adoption of on-farm renewables. She is Director of Farm Renewables Consulting and founder and convener of the annual National Renewables in Agriculture Conference and Exhibition. Co-managing a wheat and cotton farm in Narromine NSW has given Stark a first-hand perspective of the energy challenges farmers face. The installation of a 500kW solar-powered diesel pump at her family’s property has provided a yardstick for other farmers in the region to consider introducing renewable energy to their operations.

Gabrielle Chan is Guardian Australia’s rural and regional editor. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years previously writing for The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Meanjin and Griffith Review. She also has personal experience of family farming. Chan’s first book, Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up was shortlisted for the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the 2020 Walkley Awards. Her latest book, Why You Should Give a F**k About Farming was released in August 2021.

Renewable energy systems on farms can dramatically reduce carbon emissions as well as alleviate economic pressure for farmers. After the successful installation of a solar-diesel hybrid pump on her own farm, environmental scientist turned farmer Karin Stark is championing the uptake of on-farm renewables.

In that first year that we used our solar diesel pump, we saved $180,000 worth of diesel, but we also saved 500 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere from the diesel that we didn’t use.

– Karin Stark

Just in the last four or five years, the variability we’ve had with the droughts and then with the floods and not being able to pick the cotton has been very extreme.

– Karin Stark

A child plays in a cotton field
A pump house pumping water into a ditch

I’d love to just see the whole farm run off renewable energy and reduce need to import from the grid.

– Karin Stark

A small child on a bicycle cycles in the foreground of a long solar panel array

I love the term Agrivoltaics because the combining of farming and solar generation on the same parcel of land is a way that we need to be thinking more on that integrated food and energy systems avenue.

– Karin Stark

[The National Renewables in Agriculture Conference] brings together governments, peak bodies and industry and agribusiness. It’s a really positive vibe and quite an inspiring atmosphere that we’ve created because it brings together groups that are sometimes at loggerheads.

– Karin Stark

a woman speaks at a podium at a conference

In that first year that we used our solar diesel pump, we saved $180,000 worth of diesel, but we also saved 500 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere from the diesel that we didn’t use.

– Karin Stark

Gabrielle Chan

Welcome everyone, to 100 Climate Conversations and thanks for joining us. So today is number 36 of 100 conversations happening every Friday. This series presents 100 visionary Australians who are taking positive action to respond to the most critical issue of our time, climate change. We are recording live in the Boiler Hall of the Powerhouse museum. Before it was home to the museum, it was the Ultimo Power Station, built in 1899 it supplied coal powered electricity to Sydney’s tram system into the 1960s. In the context of this architectural artefact, we shift our focus forward to the innovations of the net zero revolution.

I’d like to acknowledge the Country that we’re on and the Traditional Custodians of the ancestral homelands on which we meet today and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. And I’d also like to pay my respects to the Elders on Wiradjuri land where I live. I’ve learnt a lot from them. My name is Gabrielle Chan. I am rural editor of Guardian Australia and this person next to me is Karin Stark, director of Farm Renewables Consulting and founder and convenor of the annual National Renewables in Agriculture Conference and Exhibition, co-managing a wheat and cotton farm in Narromine, New South Wales has given Karin a firsthand perspective of the energy challenges farmers face. We are so thrilled to have you join us here today, Karin. Please join me in welcoming Karin Stark.

Now I want to give the audience an idea of your beginnings. You were born in New Zealand to a Malaysian mum and an Austrian father, started university studying biological sciences, but soon switched to a double major in environmental science and sustainable development. So, what threads from your childhood gave you an interest in biology and environmental science to start with?

Karin Stark

Yeah, I think my dad was always one to teach us to be compassionate towards animals and also to tread on the earth lightly. He used to love taking us on bush walks and observing the natural world around us. I think that’s what really instilled in me a love for wanting to help nature and make sure that I worked in conservation I suppose, because I saw the importance of the living planet to the health of human beings and to animals that we share the earth with. So, I think that’s probably really where it came from.

GC

And so you began working in Western Australia, but soon moved to London to get people out of their cars and into public transport or onto their bikes. Can you tell us about that work for Transport for London, what did you learn about managing change?

KS

I worked on the London Cycle Hire scheme. I was part of the marketing comms team to help launch the scheme. So, it was the biggest in the UK, quite a high-profile new infrastructure project for central London. It launched in 2010, so I worked on it for a couple of years before that and what it did was there was about 6,000 bicycles that would be available for people to use rather than driving or using the tubes which are congested. So, it’s really a way to reduce emissions in central London, get people healthy by cycling and reduce kind of congestion on the roads and in the tubes.

So, within the first three months of the scheme launching, there was about a 30 per cent increase in people cycling in central London which had never been seen before. So, that’s a really exciting way for people to kind of change their behaviours, getting to work, getting around the central London area. But what I learnt, I guess working with all these different stakeholders is that you need to understand where the different groups are coming from and find common ground in terms of what’s going to bring them to the table to work on something together. So that was a really useful experience to work on a big kind of permanent infrastructure project like that that had environmental outcomes.

GC

So, that’s interesting that context was the conversation that was being had in London, in the UK generally in Europe at the time was around climate change. Or was it more about congestion?

KS

I think working for Transport for London, I’d say it was more a congestion issue on the tubes and on the roads, but the environmental benefits of that were certainly important. But the research that Transport for London had done showed that people make decisions based not on environmental outcomes, but on what’s going to save them money or what’s going to save them time.

GC

Right, so, practicalities, it always comes down to how does this make my life easier or better. So, how did you end up in a farm in Narromine?

KS

I actually met my partner who grew up on the farm in WA. We were both working at the Department of Environment. We both went over to the UK together and we made the decision after a very long deliberation period where my partner just couldn’t make up his mind, but we did end up moving back to the farm and having our daughter there. So, that’s been a really good move, really.

Just in the last four or five years, the variability we’ve had with the droughts and then with the floods and not being able to pick the cotton has been very extreme.

– Karin Stark

GC

And can you describe the farm for us, including where it is in New South Wales for those unfamiliar with the geography?

KS

So, if you look at the state of New South Wales and put your finger right in the middle, that’s pretty much where Narromine in Dubbo is, it’s two and a half thousand hectares that we’ve got of cotton, wheat, barley, a bit of canola this year. But because of the flooding it’s been a pretty poor season for us. We’ve barely got in our winter crop and neither have any of our neighbours. And our cotton is really still sitting out there getting soggy and falling off the plant. We usually harvest it or pick our cotton in about April and May and this year, because of the rain and the wet season we’ve had, it’s just sitting out there and it’s now October, so we still haven’t picked it. It’s not looking like we’re going to be able to pick it any time soon. So, that’s a bit of a kick to our business resilience, not earning an income and having to still pay a lot of bills, as I’m sure you can appreciate.

GC

So, how long have you been on the farm?

KS

We’ve been there ten years.

GC

Right, so, has that ever happened where you haven’t been able to pick the cotton?

KS

Never. So, just in the last four or five years, the variability we’ve had with the drought and then with the floods and not being able to pick the cotton has been very extreme. Before that, I felt like it was more you know, we knew this is going to happen in March and April. We could go away at the same time of the year. But things have just been changing pretty significantly and we’ve never not been able to pick our cotton. So, it’s quite a stressful year really.

GC

So, you obviously were deeply involved in sustainable development in London, but when did climate change become an issue for you to take action on?

A child plays in a cotton field
KS

I think of a lot of the work I’ve done has always been around reducing emissions because I’ve obviously been aware of climate change since my uni days or even before that. But really when you work in a city which I did in Perth and then London, the kind of impacts of environmental degradation or climate change aren’t as strong as when you live on the land, and you can see those changes yourself. So, when I came to the farm and you see how the drought impacts the land, the environment, the animals, our ability to grow crop as well, and the mental health of our neighbours and ourselves. And then now we’ve got floods and you know, I had to drive through floodwaters the other day, just to get good Internet in town. So, it’s really since being on the land that I’ve been able to see those impacts with my very own eyes really and see how devastating that can be for the environment and for us as farmers.

GC

And your husband’s family has been on that land for four generations, and many farms are multigenerational. Is managing change harder or easier when people have been in the same place for a longish time? Obviously not compared to Indigenous ownership, but for a longish time in their own memories.

KS

Yeah, it’s a great question. I think it can really depend on the family themselves, I suppose. I think when its multigenerational, farmers have a very close relationship with the land and with the landscape and with the environment. And I think sometimes change can be confronting for a lot of people and particularly, you know, with the Renewable Energy Zone, which we’re on the edge of, there’s going to be significant change to the landscape and people are quite fearful of that or can be quite confronted by that. But my father-in-law did a great job of taking on the irrigation when it came to the district, and that set us up really well in our farm business for really successful years. So, it kind of depends what it is I think, and depends on the farming family as to whether change is something that can be adopted easily or not.

GC

So, family culture counts for a lot.

KS

Yeah, I think so. And that ability obviously to communicate and understand what the benefits are going to be and also if your neighbours are doing it. I think farmers tend to look over the fence to plan their business for the following year and see what’s working, what’s not. So, it can really depend on the culture and what’s happening around them.

A pump house pumping water into a ditch
GC

You have installed Australia’s largest solar diesel irrigation pump on the farm in 2018. Just break that down for us. What function does that pump perform and why is it more climate friendly if it uses diesel as well?

KS

We used to only use diesel to pump our groundwater to irrigate the cotton over the summer months and before 2018, we were spending $350,000 on diesel every year to pump that water –

GC

That’s a lot of diesel.

KS

It is. Like some farmers are huge users of energy, and that’s why it’s a sector I’ve ended up focussing on a bit with my work, but it is a lot of diesel. So, I was actually when I was working for government, I ran a few solar irrigation workshops because I could see that there was interest from farmers on how to cut costs, cut emissions, but not a lot of credible information out there for them and they were really well attended. We got 60 to 70 farmers in the room in Warren, which is a little town in the middle of nowhere, for example. That was one of the ones I ran. So, I really identified, I guess, in that way that there was huge amounts of interest. And from that I kind of saw those workshops that I was running go from theory to demonstration.

One of our neighbours put a 100-kilowatt solar diesel pump, which is one of the first or if the first in the country as well to kind of commercial viability. So, we put in the solar diesel pump, which was to use solar during the day to pump water and then it would blend with diesel if it was cloudy and then at night would pump with the diesel if needed for the 24 hour to fill our reservoirs, really, to get that water out. So, that system was really exciting when we launched in 2018. We got a lot of media interest. You know, we’ve got the president of National Farmers Federation coming along to the launch as well as the Ag Minister, because it really represented a great step change for agriculture and the way we could use renewables to cut our emissions and really build business resilience. So that project was very exciting. Being an early adopter after the first year, we have had quite big problems with trying to get it to work since then. But I actually think it’s really important that farmers like ourselves share that story and that those learnings with others so that people don’t make the same mistakes. And we can continue to kind of progress the industry and others to understand how to do these systems more successfully.

GC

Tell me about those issues, because I think one of the things that scares farmers is having to deal with that and not having access to the knowledge perhaps to deal with them. So, what sort of things practically and how did it affect the running of the farm?

I’d love to just see the whole farm run off renewable energy and reduce need to import from the grid.

– Karin Stark

KS

So, we’ve got this massive 500 KVA cat generator and then we’ve got the 500 kilowatts of solar, and it’s the blending that’s the issue. So those cat generators aren’t made to work with renewables. They’re just made to work 100 per cent on their own to pump water or to do whatever, to provide power. So, when it’s a cloudy day, the solar starts to drop its power that can provide the pump and the generator can’t actually ramp up quick enough to replace that lost solar. So, the whole thing will just switch off. So, my partner John was going out there turning it on and off. Also, you don’t want that water to be going up and down kind of the shaft because it stirs up the silt at the bottom. So, that’s one issue that we’re having.

The second issue is when it’s sunset or sunrise and the solar power, it starts to reduce the power it’s providing, you’re calling on the massive diesel generator just to trickle in like a light bulb’s worth of power. So, it’s not actually working hard enough because they are made to be working 60 per cent efficiency, not 10 per cent. So, it can cause glazing on the generator. So, they’re kind of the main issues we’re seeing now, and battery storage would really be an ideal solution because then you use the battery instead of the diesel generator for those little bits where you just needing to blend a little bit to provide the power that’s required for the pump. But for farmers like ourselves that use a lot of energy. The battery size that we would require is about, we’ve been quoted about 400 to 600 grand. So, you know, high capital costs really for people like us to try and use these new renewable technologies. So, those types of systems like there’s still work to be done on the technology, and the research and the capital costs to help farmers transition to renewables.

GC

And I think that’s a really important issue because people see the PR around, say a particular battery, whether it’s the Tesla battery, which might work for households, but farms are quite big users of power. Would you say batteries in 2022, are there yet for farms in the sense of making them economically viable?

KS

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re quite at the farm scale yet. I mean, some households, the batteries work quite well at the utility scale, the grid scale, they can work, but they haven’t really been developed with, I guess, agriculture in mind with the way that farmers use energy as well. So, they can sometimes be very seasonal, they use massive amounts. So, it’s kind of that mid-scale, not the household scale or the large scale, but the payback can be when the warranty is up. So, about to say 10 years. So, it doesn’t really – battery storage doesn’t quite work now.

And I helped launch the Farm Powered report with Farmers of Climate Action this week, and one of the recommendations for government was to subsidise on farm batteries to kind of help the farming sector to be able to store their excess solar and not put it into already constrained grids, but also help with things like, you know, extending daylight hours by storing that power, but reliability as well, because there are a lot of farmers that need a really reliable, consistent supply of power. Otherwise, you know, in dairies, milk can spoil. So, if you know that you’re not going to have blackouts, you can use batteries as a redundancy in the system. So, there’s some really great advantages to farmers being able to incorporate batteries onto their farms, but the cost is just way too high at the moment.

GC

And so what was the reaction of the farming community to your live experiment that was going on next door?

KS

Huge amounts of interest, actually, like we’d get stopped in our local shops with other irrigators saying, oh, how’s it all going? And we had people coming for little tours or to find out how it works and a lot of calls from other farmers and even suppliers as well they were interested, they could see the market are interested to do it as well. I think farmers want to be able to adapt and use renewables if it’s going to make good business sense for them.

A small child on a bicycle cycles in the foreground of a long solar panel array
GC

And you mentioned launching that report, I think with the economist Ross Garnaut this week. How long have you been involved in Farmers for Climate Action and how has that group changed the conversation in farming when it comes to climate?

KS

I’ve been involved with them for probably three or four years. I’ve helped with presentations and mentoring and then writing this Farm Powered report. If you’re concerned about climate change and the impacts that climate change is having on farms and our food systems and the prices of food, Farmers for Climate Action are a great group to get involved in because they advocate for more action around climate change to try and help the sector and make sure that governments are paying attention to what needs to happen in agriculture. So, they’re fantastic group to be part of.

GC

And so with renewables, generally, notwithstanding what you’ve said about batteries not quite being there for the kind of mid-sized farm, why should farmers get involved in renewables?

KS

As we head into the future. Our food and energy systems are very intertwined. There’s so many reasons why if a farmer can adopt renewable energy, they’re decarbonising. And that’s really important because if we want to continue to export our products overseas and open new markets, we need to demonstrate how we’re decarbonising as a sector. There’s also more community desire to have green sustainable products, so the use of renewable energy can really help to demonstrate a green clean product. So, that’s on a farm level.

There’s a reliability benefits as well. So, a lot of farmers are on the edge of the grid, which means kind of long distribution lines. And we get blackouts quite often on our property. Renewables and battery storage in particular can help to bring that more reliable power to a farm. And then, of course, the emission savings. So, in that first year that we used our solar diesel pump, we saved $180,000 worth of diesel, but we also saved 500 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere from the diesel that we didn’t use. So, it just seems like there’s multiple benefits, like it’s a win-win, win-win. More and more, our energy transition requires farming and agriculture to really host these developments. So, it’s just so intertwined, I think our food, energy systems and so many opportunities to be grasped if the right decisions are made today.

GC

And just describe the Renewable Energy Zones that New South Wales has implemented.

KS

I’m on the edge of the Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone. It’s a pilot, one I suppose. So, it’s like a modern-day power plant and we need these Renewable Energy Zones because they have to replace the four out of five coal fired power stations that are retiring in the next 10 to 15 years. So, what we’re going to see is a large buildout of transmission lines, solar, wind and storage. And that energy will then go to where it’s needed in the cities or businesses. And it can really provide some pretty massive opportunities for regional communities, regional revitalisation. But we’ve got to make the right planning decisions now that people need to be consulted well in the regions, we need to make sure the benefits are shared equally among people because they are wearing the impacts of some of the large-scale infrastructure that will be put in place in these Renewable Energy Zones.

GC

In what way? What problems have you seen in the rollout of that?

I love the term Agrivoltaics because the combining of farming and solar generation on the same parcel of land is a way that we need to be thinking more on that integrated food and energy systems avenue.

– Karin Stark

KS

I was talking before about how farming communities a lot of the time are quite connected to the landscape, the way things have been for generations. So, these large-scale solar developments and wind, as well as transmission lines are going to start popping up in quite a small geographical area, like quite a high concentration. There are some in the community that, you know, they don’t necessarily want that to happen next door to them because they’ve been used to looking at sheep or hills their whole lives. So, there’s a bit of opposition in some of these Renewable Energy Zones.

The government probably could do a bit of a better job at articulating what the benefits can be for regional communities within these Renewable Energy Zones and make sure that they’re understanding what’s important to them, what’s going to make life easier. And so, the investment that comes in can help with those types of benefits for the community. I mean, during construction, there’s construction disruption. Your quiet dirt road suddenly has hundreds of truck movements a day, you know, creating dust and noise. And it’s really the neighbours, I think, of these large-scale developments that sometimes can be the losers because they don’t benefit directly. The host can, you know, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is fantastic for them because it really helps set those farms up for generations. And also, if a farm is earning a guaranteed income, that really flows into the local economy, even during a drought. So that farm is still getting money coming in because of leasing land to solar and wind and that props up the local economy. So, there’s really great benefits out of something like a Renewable Energy Zone if they’re delivered well.

GC

You are passionate about agrivoltaics. What does that mean?

KS

Great question. So, agrivoltaics is the term they use around the combination of farming with solar in particular, because at the moment, large-scale solar developments which can cover hundreds of hectares. People see that as locking up productive land and it’s in their communities, they see that as a loss and there can be some opposition towards it. So, I love the term agrivoltaics because the combining of farming and solar generation on the same parcel of land is a way that we need to be thinking more on that integrated food and energy systems avenue. And it’s done overseas quite a lot.

In Japan, they grow 120 different crops under solar panels. They do it in Germany and Denmark. But in Australia we’ve got so much landmass and quite a small population in the regions that we haven’t had to really combine agriculture and solar generation, but we’re seeing it done quite successfully with the grazing of sheep under solar panels. There’s a farmer out where I am in Dubbo who grazes merino sheep and not only is there protection in the summer from the heat because they get a lot of shade, but the fencing around the solid development has meant his sheep in that area that are grazing under the panels have been protected from any predators. And he’s lost something like 36 sheep to wild dogs and foxes over the last 12 months and none within his kind of solar farm that he hosts. And also, during the drought, he often talks about that the water condensed on the solar panels and would drip down and grow grass for the sheep to eat. And he only had to feed his sheep for about three months of the two-year drought. Compared to other farmers that’s a pretty small number of months he had to then pay for feed.

But I think the growing of crops is a really exciting area that I’d love to see Australia try and adopt a bit more. So, things like berries and some fruit trees, they can actually increase their yields with up to 30 per cent of shade. And with a warming climate like what we’re seeing that shade over, even a vineyard, can be really important for the quality of the fruit. And it also gives that secondary income to those farmers so that if they do have a bad year, they can still rely on having income either from leasing their land or from feeding that energy into the grid if they own the system themselves. So, I think it’s an area where I’d love to see a bit more development, particularly in the Renewable Energy Zone, so that not only do you increase social license for those developments, but we’re using that land productively. And with climate change it is already harder to grow food and fibre like what we’re seeing on our farm. So, I think being able to continue farming under solar is a pretty important step forward.

GC

So, you’ve authored this report about the opportunities for regional communities. So, what are the opportunities for the wider community, not just the farmer?

KS

So, if our energy transition who make the right decisions now with it, I think there can be massive opportunities for regional revitalisation from large-scale renewables. That might look like an increase in new industries coming to the area if they can use that power at a cheaper cost because it’s being transmitted a shorter distance, things like green ammonia to urea factories as well to supply the local region could be something that can happen out of the energy transition. Also, you know, it’s going to bring a lot of jobs and money into local economies as these developments are built and operated as well. And it can really help to increase the diversity of the types of people and industries that live in the region. So, the decisions now need to be the right ones to set us up for that opportunity.

[The National Renewables in Agriculture Conference] brings together governments, peak bodies and industry and agribusiness. It’s a really positive vibe and quite an inspiring atmosphere that we’ve created because it brings together groups that are sometimes at loggerheads.

– Karin Stark

GC

You established the National Renewables in Ag Conference, Agriculture. Tell us about that conference and what did you set out trying to do?

KS

So, I gathered a conference committee, which involved Farmers for Climate Action, Clean Energy Council, New South Wales Farmers, National Farmers Federation and Department of Primary Industries, as well as a couple of others. So, all of these organisations saw that there was a gap in the market for knowledge sharing around renewables in agriculture, and they came together and helped, and they still were helping me to design and deliver the conference each year.

It’s really about telling the stories in agriculture and farming and getting other farmers to learn from their peers. But it also brings together governments, peak bodies and industry and agribusiness. So, it’s a really positive vibe and quite an inspiring atmosphere that we’ve created because it brings together groups that are sometimes at loggerheads. So, environmentalists and farmers, it brings all of those groups together to say, how can we work together for a better, sustainable future? So, the conference really was designed to address the main barriers to the adoption of renewables. So, we’ve got a lack of working examples for farmers to learn from, a lack of understanding of feasibility and what you can actually do on your farm. High capital costs, which we try and provide information about what loans are available or what grants, and also a lack of trust in suppliers.

So, we have the expo part of the conference, which brings together credible businesses that have had experience in the farming sector and then farms can go around and talk to the different suppliers there to see what they can do on their farm. So, as part of that conference, I’m big believer in partnerships and from working on a lot of projects that had a shoestring budget but quite big goals, and trying to bring people together to leverage each other’s expertise and resources. So, it’s really a great place to come and hear about electric vehicles, hydrogen, bioenergy, storage, solar, irrigating, all those exciting kind of future avenues for farming.

GC

I’ve spent most of my career reporting on politics. And politics for the last decade or more has seen these dreadful climate wars that have slowed climate policy to a crawl. Do you think farmers have changed? Do you think they accept, largely, climate science? Because the interesting thing about your work is that you’ve been doing all of this quietly under the radar, while on the national stage the political parties that are most associated with farmers have either denied climate science or said the economy can’t afford to change. So, where do you think farmers generally are at now with climate science? Do you think most accept it or is it too hard a generalisation to make?

KS

Where I live in the Central West, they are very conservative people, and I don’t believe that the climate science is fully accepted by a lot of people out there. I think climate impacts of farmers are so extreme it threatens your way of life, and it threatens your business. So, potentially denying that that is happening could be the easiest kind of way to continue doing what you’re doing. It’s interesting because I’ve discussed with John, my partner, that with the conference, I’m a big climate action advocate and so I would like to push that message a lot more at my conference. But John would say, you know, you get the outcome you want, which is farmers going to renewables, if you just talk about the business case, because the business case for renewables is becoming stronger and stronger as the price of solar and batteries in particular come down and more technologies becoming available.

So, yeah, I’m not sure. The farmers out where I live are quite conservative still and I think they’ve seen these things before, the droughts and floods. But you know, I’ve spoken to some that say they recognise that there are changes and that it’s getting hotter. That’s undeniably true that we’re seeing a warming climate and how that’s impacting their properties. I think it’s the more severe events coming together in shorter periods and the unpredictable weather that is really quite detrimental.

GC

I think only this week you put a photo or a video on social media of driving through floodwaters in order to present the climate change and renewables opportunities for regional areas. So, I think it was a stark reminder of what is happening. I think that learning from other farmers is the thing that is changing that decision. Economically, it’s starting to win the argument no matter what people think about climate science. Do you think that would be true economically for a farmer to make that transition?

KS

Yeah, definitely. I mean, the payback for our system was only five years. It’s obviously been extended now because it hasn’t been working as it needs to and we need batteries. But I think the case for a lot of farmers that I included case studies in the Farm Powered report that was launched this week, you know, they’re seeing massive savings between 40 and 85 per cent from use of renewables with quite short payback periods. So, the case is there. The problem is the high upfront cost. Sometimes with these renewable energy systems, because the cost is high upfront, then you pay it back and then basically energy’s free.

Farmers deal with so much variability in their farm incomes and outputs, more than any other business owner in the Australian economy. So, having to put $250,000 upfront for a system, there’s a lot of reticence when you don’t know if you’re going to have a crop the following year because there’s floods like what we’ve seen this year or there was drought like we saw a few years ago. So, it can be quite a big investment decision to outlay that much. So, I think we’re not seeing that uptake as quick as we need to see it or as quick as I’d like to see it, because the farmers have to deal with the variability of incomes that they get per year. So, it’s not that easy to outlay a couple of hundred thousand.

a woman speaks at a podium at a conference
GC

And what about water? Because you’re an irrigator and there is a lot of negative press about irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. How do you imagine water and irrigation farms will change in that time? Are you preparing for a future with less water or, you know, with this flooding, will we see different opportunities to capture water?

KS

I think there will be less freshwater in the future. There are some companies and technologies at the moment that are looking at how to use renewable energy to desalinate groundwater that’s saline. Because there is quite – there’s more saline groundwater than there is fresh groundwater, which I only learnt last week. I think there’s going to be opportunities that renewables can provide that were previously really energy intensive, which can now be done because we’ve got lower costs of energy.

So, I think, having more energy efficient irrigation systems, which previously was using more energy when they started to implement those things, could be a good opportunity for irrigators like ourselves to try and reduce that loss. And you know, even putting floating solar on dams could be an opportunity because it reduces evaporation, which can be quite significant when you’ve got large dams like we do on our farm. So, I think everyone needs to be considering how water is used in the landscape, ensuring that there’s enough for the environment and the rivers as well. But irrigated agriculture, you know, provides 85 per cent of our vegies and fruit. So, it’s important and we’re going to have to look at ways of using treated water or using saline water and using renewables to desalinate it.

GC

How do you imagine your farm in 2030? What changes will we see even that close, only eight years away, but is the acceleration of change happening more quickly? Are you noticing things changing faster as climate changes?

KS

Well, I certainly hope there’s going to be faster change. But, you know, for our farm in 2030, I’d love to see the electrification of our farm. So, that might look like electric tractors that are powered through solar panels on our property, having battery storage and solar to run pumps, not using diesel anymore. It could be farmers putting 1 to 5 megawatt solar farms on their properties in the most unproductive land and being able to redefine their role in regional communities to be energy traders as well. So, you could be a multi-income proposition really, not just producing food but selling and producing energy as well as food. So, selling to your neighbours, selling to your local community so they’ve all got access to cleaner, green, cheaper energy as well.

GC

Incredibly interesting. Thank you very much. Please thank Karin for that contribution. To follow the program online, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit the 100 Climate Conversations exhibition or join us for a live recording like this one. You can go to 100climateconversations.com and just search for 100 Climate Conversations in your pod catcher of choice.

This is a significant new project for the museum and the records of these conversations will form a new climate change archive preserved for future generations in the Powerhouse collection of over 500,000 objects that tell the stories of our time. It is particularly important to First Nations peoples to preserve conversations like this, building on the oral histories and traditions of passing down our knowledges, sciences and innovations which we know allowed our Countries to thrive for tens of thousands of years.

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