Electrifying the farm

Sally Hunter and her family applied the same DIY logic to electrifying their home and farm in north west NSW as they've done to every other aspect of their lives.

It's the feeling I get from seeing small seedlings sprout from the seedling trays in my glasshouse at the start of spring.  It's the warm fuzzies I get from knowing our rain water tank is full. It's the deep satisfaction from presenting a meal to friends that's made from our own produce.

These are the same feelings that have driven our electrification journey - knowing we can take care of our own energy needs is liberating.

Running a livestock farm using regenerative ag practices in north west NSW with my husband and three teenage sons, we are used to just getting on and doing things for ourselves.  We’re not connected to central water or sewage systems, we don't get a garbage truck coming around, and we don't have gas plumbed in.  

So it made total sense to us to switch our appliances to electric, generate as much of the electricity ourselves, store it, and use it as we need it. This has been a journey we have been on for around four years now, and one that still has a few miles to go.

We purchased and moved onto our farm and house in 2011 and installed our first 3kW solar system not long after that. It cost us around $8,000.  

Both my husband, Geoff, and I grew up on farms, on marginal country during difficult times - the beef depression, droughts, and then the massive interest rate hikes.  

My family had the firm view that there wasn’t anything you could not make yourself.  I grew up learning to make leather bridles for horses, weld chook pens together, tan our own hides, butcher our own meat, and make hats from skins.

Most of our clothes were home made and we even tried, unsuccessfully, to build a mud hut.  We never had air conditioning and we learnt to be water and electricity conscious as if our lives depended on it!

It's from this approach to life that has made the journey of electrification so satisfying for us - it is a way to live comfortably and still reduce our footprint on the world.

Sally Hunter riding Fox mustering cattle in the Namoi Valley (Image: Anne Backhaus)

I have been deeply concerned about the impact of coal mining and gas fields on farmlands, water resources, communities, climate and forests for the last twelve years. In our region we have four coal mines, with 3 more being developed - all for export - and NSW’s first fossil gasfield potentially on its way.        

It took a while for us to understand the seemingly counterintuitive approach that if we want to reduce our reliance on coal and gas, we should switch to electricity.  

But Saul Giffith’s work helped us understand how much gross inefficiency is in fossil fuel based systems.  Namely, the huge amounts of energy that are used to transport fossil fuels to central locations, and then distribute electricity back out to where it is needed.  

Huge amounts of energy are used to create heat in a vehicle’s engine that is completely wasted.  Electrification and our own renewable generation removes these inefficiencies, ultimately consuming less energy overall.  

In 2019 we started analysing our electricity bills closely to try to understand where and when our usage was happening and how we could move parts of it to renewables.  We used Powerpal and we borrowed a metering tool from the library to help us understand which of our appliances were the biggest users of electricity.  

Then we installed another 5kW of solar and a 7.2kWh battery to help tide us over during the nights. This gave us better transparency over our usage and generation data too.  We were early adopters of some software that shows our use down to a circuit level so we can see what is using power.  

We also switched our electric hot water system to heat up in the middle of the day.  In summer we can usually get through our morning coffee by the time the battery runs out and we need to start importing from the grid until the sun is shining again.  

The greatest benefit from the battery for us has been the blackout protection.  We get frequent blackouts but the only way we know one is happening now is our neighbour comes over to charge his phone or have a cuppa.

In 2022 we purchased an EV - a Tesla Model 3 - and have now done nearly 50,000 kilometres of country driving with just one kangaroo incident so far!  

Geoff Hunter taking ownership of his Tesla when it was delivered all the way to Baan Baa as part of the purchase price.

We worked out that we have saved at least $13,000 so far by not having to fill up and maintain our old diesel car, a Toyota landcruiser wagon.  We can get 6 km of driving from 1 kWh of charge, which at worst, costs us 35 cents. At best it's free if we use the Gunnedah NRMA charger, or charge at home with our solar, and sacrifice our 11 cents feed-in-tariff.  

We live 50 km from town, so it’s a $3 trip to town instead of around $11 that it used to cost in the landcruiser.  My husband does our vehicle servicing so he loves not having to do any oil changes, or any servicing at all (that’s also liberating)!

Late in 2022 we ditched our gas cooktop and bought an induction stove. I have been surprised by what a fantastic cooking experience it provides.  

We spend most of our winter weekends camping out at polocrosse carnivals so we ditched our noisy generator and now have the peace and quiet of solar and a battery in our truck.  

We don’t use motorbikes on our farm, and only handle our livestock on horseback.  Geoff has also fashioned a solar powered trailer that powers our electric fences when the livestock are in remote places.

The Hunter’s horse truck with the living quarters powered by solar and battery.

We are also helping other people in Northwest NSW on their electrification journeys through our not-for-profit, Geni.Energy in the main street of Narrabri.  Starting in 2020, Geni.Energy creates new jobs and investment from the renewables sector.  Our region is not in one of the NSW Government’s Renewable Energy Zones, so we have to get on and do these things ourselves.  

Sally Hunter at the Electric Ute day held in Narrabri this year (Image: John Burgess)

In the coming months we will install a community battery right in the heart of Narrabri.  As a community with coal workers, we need to find ways to help transition these jobs to renewables so we people can continue to live locally.

Sally Hunter is a mother, farmer and advocate working for Lock The Gate Alliance and Geni.Energy.

Author
Sally Hunter
Managing Director, Geni.Energy
December 4, 2023
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