Solar in the bush
23 Sep, 2013
I am sorry to inform you all that I have just spent an awesome 7 days in the Australian outback. Although I was incommunicado for a full week, I couldn’t escape solar and in fact, was surrounded by it !
Going bush is a tradition that we all too often neglect and thanks to my in-laws, we got a fantastic taste last week of an amazing property called Barkala Farm not far from where some of our in laws settled several generations ago. The 9000 acre farm has a long history but for almost 40 years has been owned and developed by a committed and wonderful family who still run it today. Although they run cattle and specialise in horse riding, bush-walks and bird watching they are also famous for their very substantial pottery making facility – and its all run by solar.
With an extended family group of almost 20 people, we hired a wonderful straw-bale/stone/mud brick/slab hut that was recently rebuilt and tucked away at the end of a gully. Surrounded by grazing horses you look over craggy outcrops and innumerable trails and forest, characteristic of the Pilliga Scrub which at 3000km2, is the largest such continuous semi-arid woodland in temperate north-central and the the biggest untouched remnant in NSW. If you haven’t witnessed the Pilliga you must see it.
We saw wildlife galore and the kids were fascinated by giant bush cockroaches, emu’s, wild goats and kangaroos. We gazed at endless moonlit skies every night while we cooked on our open fire, saw historic graffiti from early explorers and found masses of aboriginal tools. A sunset trail ride was a highlight; nothing beats slowly plodding through the bush with wildlife almost oblivious and I even avoided being thrown off when my trusty steed got spooked (just).
I got to take my boys on their first mountain bike ride down a 3km winding bush trail complete with creek crossings, sand, rocks and some wild goats thrown in for good measure and retraced the route at dawn on my Zero, getting deeper up the trail on a wonderful misty morning and deftly discovering some great new country in elegant silence.
Back to solar; I wrote about the challenges we discovered trying to sort out refrigeration for such a big mob in a recent post. The farm has progressively upgraded its power generation over the years as demand has risen, starting almost 21 years ago with a great little PV system which now runs the hut we stayed in (state of the art 55W BP panels, no less). Not long ago, they also upgraded what had become a 100% diesel power system on the main facility due to the load from the pottery kilns and blacksmith workshops adding a fantastic 40kW PV system.
Much to my families chagrin, I spent a fair bit of time poking around with the son of the owner who really knows his stuff. He delighted in the fact that the majority of the time, they simply “skimmed” energy off the top to keep the place running, barely discharging during the day and carefully managing load at night. Scanning around, LED lights, soft start motors and bunch of other energy saving measure were in place. Interestingly, the only challenge they face is during a certain combination of high loads when the generator takes too long to kick in and sync up and so far he hasn’t quite got the set-up right to avoid it cycling on and off and on and off as the intermittent load comes and goes and battery voltage rapidly rises and falls. Off Grid is inherently more complex and subject to such idiosyncrasies than Grid Connect power, and reminds me of the high level of support such systems require, even when the customer have their own “load sense”; it is not an off the shelf, sell and forget solution.
They’ll get it right soon I’m sure and have good partners and suppliers.
Our little 1.5kW system ran the hut with aplomb handling the family induced surge of demand really well even with two days of rain and cloud. The battery capacity was obviously well designed for such events and with a 5kW inverter, there was plenty of grunt for the electric fry pan that got used once or twice (for warming side dishes to accompany the beast we worked our way through) and recharging my Zero once.
Being remote from the main system, I’m really glad we didn’t turn up with a cool room because it wouldn’t have coped with the lousy efficiency of standard units. Instead, we got by by spreading the cooling load out. The hut has a 200L fridge but to bolster it we used our camper van’s 40L fridge (run by its own solar) and plugged our 50L Waeco into the house, knowing that was was really efficient at around 30W. To back that up we had a small eskie and massive 300L eskie which held all the necessary refreshments for big strong men, dusty from days on the track, whittling, surviving in the bush, protecting women folk and other such necessary pursuits. The big eskie had 18 bags of ice that got us through the entire week at beer chilling temperature, the saving grace being a cool place to hide it and cold nights.
We also loaded up and did a days driving while we where their, paying our respect to past ancestors, got a sulphur bath in the nearby hot springs and visited the stunning Dandri Gorge. What struck me most though was passing through the small towns of Pilliga, Gwabegar, Baradine and the larger centre’s of Wee Waa and Coonabarabran. These are not highly prosperous towns as a rule and in fact some are a shadow of their once great former selves. It’s tough country filled with tough folks who are true outback survivors living simple lives. And you know what many of them had on their roofs? Grid Connected solar systems, by the bucket load. In fact after a while, my young boys, usually eagle eyed for solar installs just gave up commenting because we were all getting bored with the rolling commentary.
Large rural enterprises and struggling outback towns using solar are the opposite of “middle class welfare”; they are living proof that solar really works at a community level and makes incredible sense in our big wide land.
Post expires at 5:13pm on Tuesday September 23rd, 2014