Bargara Cane Farm
Bargara Cane Farm
Solar irrigation installation: Bundaberg sugar cane grower’s energy woes spark development of revolutionary technology by GEM Energy
Owned by the Griffin family, Bargara Cane Farm is a 80ha (198 acre) property located east of Bundaberg, and is one of over 4,000 cane farming ventures in Australia. 95% of the roughly 378,000 ha (934,058 acres) of sugar cane crops is located along the east coast of Queensland.
Sugar cane farming is one of the major rural industries in Australia, contributing $2 billion annually to the Australian economy and providing over 16,000 direct jobs across different sectors including growing, harvesting, milling and transport.
The entire crop can produce 35 million tonnes of sugar cane each year, which is further processed into up to 4.5 million tonnes of raw sugar, 1 million tonnes of molasses and 10 million tonnes of bagasse.
80% of the raw sugar produced is exported via six bulk storage ports, making Australia the third largest supplier of raw sugar globally.
The Griffins, along with countless other irrigators, businesses, and residents in regional Queensland, have been battling with rising electricity prices on the Ergon network for many years. For a while, the Griffin family made do by only using their pumps on the cheaper off-peak tariffs on weekends or late at night. As a result, production on roughly one third of their property requiring high-pressure irrigation dropped by more than 10%. An investment in a new irrigator did not pay off as it became too expensive to run. Their experience is echoed around the country as farmers have to risk their crops’ health by cutting back on watering because they simply can’t afford to run the pumps on grid electricity.
In 2014, after a substantial amount of research and number crunching, the Griffins decided to embrace the call to innovation and invest in a high-pressure solar irrigation installation. This was a courageous decision by the family considering that there were no examples of the technology out there in the field. They were also aware that it was not going to be a cheap investment. While low-pressure, off-grid solar irrigation is fairly well-known around the world, high-pressure systems of the kind required by the Bundaberg sugar cane farm had never been attempted.
The Griffins were approached by 34 solar companies until they found the one that was fit for the challenge: GEM Energy to the rescue!
Our engineering team was more than intrigued, asked many, many questions, and came up with a number of different system designs before finding a ground-breaking solution that met all the criteria at a reasonable price.
System Cost: AU $100 000 ex GST
Payback Period: Five Years
To reduce the running costs of the Griffins’ travelling winch irrigator system at Bargara Cane Farm, GEM Energy custom designed a total off-grid, high-pressure solar irrigation system. It balances the water pressure and flow rate of the pumps to ensure the optimal running of the system with minimal weight losses, evaporation or pooling.
The single, high-pressure 37kW winch pump was replaced with 2 smaller pumps (15kW and 17kW), enabling individual control of water pressure and flow rate.
A specially designed variable speed drive was installed to control the pumps and ensure that they only function under the correct conditions. All of these components are powered by a 55kWp ground-mounted solar PV array.
The new system can run in line with the existing on-grid irrigation system, and the Griffins can monitor and adjust the water pressure and power use via their computer.
More than 18 months after the initial contact, the system was finally installed and running in April 2016.
The bespoke solar irrigation system at Bargara Cane Farm is designed to allow up to six hours of full operation per day, and the Griffins can push it to ten hours by decreasing the water pressure. While the site can run entirely off-grid, the network is still there for backup when needed. Usually, the Griffins turn their new system on during the day to water as much as they can for free, and use cheaper off-peak power only if they absolutely need to.
While the family has taken on some debt to finance the new system, their farm has been able to return to full production. The payback period is projected to be about five years, and from that point onwards they will be debt-free and owning their custom-designed irrigation system outright.
The biggest relief for the Griffins is no doubt that the massive $40,000+ annual electricity bills have stopped coming in. And the family is already planning their next innovation: to add solar batteries to the system which will enable them to water their farm at dusk and dawn when the solar system is not producing power.
In this environment of rising grid electricity costs, the decreasing cost of solar PV and battery storage are becoming increasingly applicable for rural electricity consumers like the Griffin family. GEM Energy’s revolutionary off-grid solar irrigation installation design can get farmers through the whole growing season without having to buy from the grid, and it can work for just about any farm in the country.
The Bargara Cane Farm project has attracted a lot of interest from other irrigators around the country, as well as overseas.
It is a perfect showcase of how rural businesses can future-proof their operations, especially considering that batteries are set to become much more financially viable within the next couple of years.
GEM Energy’s founder and CEO, Jack Hooper, commented,
“Soon, enough you won’t need the grid (with solar). Ergon don’t want it to happen, but it’s only a matter of time with constantly increasing power prices.”
GEM Energy are thrilled to share another one of our cutting-edge projects with you and would like to congratulate the Griffin family for their courage and determination in turning their luck around. We are dedicated to support households and businesses like theirs on the path to more energy independence.
Huge thanks also go out to our amazing engineering team and our hard-working installers at Elvery’s Electrical Service in Bundaberg.