Large-scale wind and solar projects may be accelerating across regional Australia, but a new report says smaller on-farm renewable projects are being overlooked in the country's transition to net zero emissions.
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Farmers for Climate Action report says on-farm renewable projects are getting overlooked
Karin Stark says farmers could be part of the solution to replacing retiring coal dependency.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

The report by advocacy group Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) suggests governments need to do more to encourage small-scale renewables and allow farmers to share power with their neighbours and local communities.

Key points:

  • A report has called on the federal government to implement a climate change and agriculture policy
  • It has recommended incentives and subsidies for on-farm renewables and batteries
  • It has also recommended re-thinking distribution networks to allow farmers to share power

Report author and cotton farmer Karin Stark said agriculture could be part of the solution to replacing retiring coal generation with renewables and energy storage.

“I think the easiest thing for government has been just to do really large-scale solar and wind developments,” she said.

“But I think they’re missing considering how we can make better use of existing assets, such as the distribution network.”

Farmers for Climate Action report says on-farm renewable projects are getting overlooked 1
Karin Stark generates 500 kilowatts of solar power for irrigation on her cotton farm.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

Ms Stark said reforming distribution networks would allow farmers to share power with their neighbours and close-by communities, as well as earn a secondary income.

“If we are able to support farmers and regional communities to implement their own 1 to 5 megawatt solar farms on the existing distribution network, it can reduce the need for really large-scale solar that some regional communities don’t really like,” she said.

“If we can get this right, it’s a really valuable asset for regional people because it could actually reduce the need for so much new transmission lines to be built.”

Energy going to waste

Reforms could not come soon enough for western Queensland cotton farmer Ian Brimblecombe, who has 1,000 solar panels that were not being put to full use.

“I’ve installed probably probably half a meg [megawatt] of solar on different places around the farm to help offset my pumping costs,” he said.

Farmers for Climate Action report says on-farm renewable projects are getting overlooked 2
Ian Brimblecombe generates nearly half a megawatt of solar power for his irrigation pumps.(Supplied Ian Brimblecombe)

Despite only needing them to power his irrigation for one month of the year, he said it saved him about $60,000 annually.

Mr Brimblecombe said it made no sense that local distribution network rules were preventing him from maximising the use of the mid-scale system.

“I mean, there’s got to be a way to make it work,” he said.

“I can’t sell power — I can’t transfer power from one pump station on my property to another pump station, for instance.

“I’m limited in how much I can export.”

With state and federal governments aiming to increase their renewable energy targets, farmers like Mr Brimblecomb believe they can be part of the solution.

“We’ve got the Queensland government just last week announcing that they want to get to, I don’t know, what is it, 70 per cent [renewable power]?

“I’d be quite happy to help them do that, but at the moment I can’t.”

Farmers for Climate Action report says on-farm renewable projects are getting overlooked 3
Economist Professor Ross Garnaut says farmers should not be treated disadvantageously.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Economist Ross Garnaut said there was a huge opportunity for rural Australia but policy reform was not keeping up.

“These opportunities are going to require new approaches to regulation and policy at all levels of government, local government, state government, federal government,” he said.

“The guiding principle has to be to make sure that that farmers and decentralised producers are not treated disadvantageously compared with people who use the established systems.”

Calls for a national policy

The report recommends the federal government create a national climate change and agriculture policy, and provide incentives and subsidies to farmers, including for batteries.

“We need to set a target for agriculture for renewable energy use,” Ms Stark said.

“We actually don’t have a baseline at the moment of what the renewable energy adoption has been across the sector.”

Farmers for Climate Action report says on-farm renewable projects are getting overlooked 4
Karin Stark says the grid needs to be modernised so that farmers with mid-scale renewables can benefit.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

As well as contributing to overall renewable energy production, Ms Stark said there were huge benefits for farmers who replace diesel and mains electricity with renewables.

“On a farm level … this cuts costs, it reduces emissions, and it builds business resilience as well, and these types of systems can also improve reliability of power for farmers, particularly those on the edge of the grid, or those that have a lot of blackouts,” she said.

“And a decarbonised agricultural sector also means we can continue to trade overseas or open new markets.”

Farmers ‘champing at the bit’

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said he welcomed the report.

“This is a really useful contribution from Farmers for Climate Action and it shows that farmers are way ahead of the game when it comes to using renewables and employing sustainable methods on their farms,” he said.

“They really just want government policy to catch up and then start showing some leadership.”

Mr Watt said he had asked his department to look at what incentives could be provided to farmers.

“What I’ve found since becoming the minister is that farmers are champing at the bit to do the right thing environmentally, but also to do it in a way that helps bring down their costs,” he said.

“I’m certainly open to a wide range of measures that are being contemplated by this report and I’m looking forward to having future discussions.”

Farmers for Climate Action report says on-farm renewable projects are getting overlooked 5
Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says he is open to the report’s recommendations.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

Mr Watt added that he did not believe a renewable target set specifically for agriculture was necessary.

“Rather than taking an approach of industry-by-industry targets, what we’ve done is settle on an economy-wide target,” Mr Watt said.

“And I know that the agriculture sector is really well positioned to contribute to that.”

Globally, consumers can’t get enough of the quality and taste of American dairy products. Foreign exports of American dairy are twice the volume of the nation’s domestic dairy consumption. Last year, about 18% of U.S. dairy production was exported, and economists forecast that percentage to grow more than 25% in 2023.

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