From running the world's first electric cherry orchard to helping electrify New Zealand

Mike Casey first electrified his cherry orchard. Now his mission is to show New Zealanders its cheaper to run an electric home than a fossil fuel one.

Mike Casey likes to call himself an “electric cherry orchardist from New Zealand.” As far as he knows, he’s the first electric cherry farmer in the world, having swapped over all 21 of his farm machines for electric versions, which he powers from his own solar and battery setup.

That includes two 30kW frost fighting fans imported from South Africa, an electric tractor imported from California, and an electric forklift. He has also traded in the orchard's diesel ute and the family's Rav4 for two electric konas. When they couldn't buy the electrical equipment they needed they made it. A golf cart was turned into an orchard utility, then an electric weed sprayer and paint sprayer added.

Casey imported New Zealand's first electric tractor from California.

“I spent four years sourcing technology from all around the world, and spent about $600,000 more on the total setup of my farm compared to what I would have done if I'd used incumbent diesel technology,” Mike Casey told the SwitchedOn podcast.

But despite the initial upfront cost, and even though the cost of all the machinery and technology he bought in 2019-2020 has since plummeted, the electric machines have enabled him to save between $50 to $60,000 a year on his energy costs, and the payback will be just 8-9 years.

The golf cart that was turned into an orchard utility vehicle.

“It’s massively reduced my operational costs and my emissions,” says Casey. “I started to realise that if I plan to run my farm for more than 10 years, it's a really significant opportunity for me.”

Casey argues that rooftop solar was the gateway that enabled him to electrify his entire orchard.

“It’s so significantly cheaper than a litre of diesel that it would just make absolutely no sense to buy another diesel machine once you are taking advantage of your rooftop solar.”

When Casey was setting up his 45kW solar array and 120kWh battery array, he was told by several people that solar panels wouldn’t do much to reduce New Zealand’s emissions because their national grid is already highly renewable. Their extensive hydropower has enabled New Zealand to create a grid that is now over 80% renewable.

But although New Zealand’s electricity grid is largely run on renewables, only around 30% of their total energy use is renewable.

“There's been a narrative for a long time that solar doesn't work in New Zealand, and it couldn't be further from the truth.”

“People made the mistake here of not realising how significantly cheaper rooftop solar actually is,” says Casey. “You pay about 25 cents on average for a kilowatt hour coming from the grid … and it's six cents from solar on your rooftop.”

Casey was always interested in growing food, but after spending 12 years in Sydney running a software business, he decided to move back to New Zealand and buy the cherry orchard with a specific plan to pair farming with electrification.

What now gets him out of bed in the morning is being able to share his story with as many New Zealanders as possible, and “making them realise that New Zealand is now at a tipping point where you're always better off going with the electric option over the fossil fuel option.”

“It's been amazing the number of visitors that have come to my farm in the last three years,” he says. “We’re talking north of 10,000 and that's probably an underestimate.”

Casey’s cherry orchard, Forest Lodge, now has busloads of visitors, including farmers and organised corporate tours, because people see electrification as a practical hope for climate action.

But Casey isn’t only interested in talking about his achievements on the farm. He’s now the Chief Executive of Rewiring Aotearoa, a non-profit helping New Zealanders with the energy transition by building their electrified futures. Like Rewiring Australia and Rewiring America it was kick started by Australian scientist Dr Saul Griffith.

Recently Casey was involved in a Rewiring Aotearoa study, Electric Homes, which has crunched the numbers to find that New Zealand is now one of the first countries to reach an ‘electrification tipping point’: it's cheaper to run an electric home in New Zealand, including a car, than it is a fossil fuel home and car, even considering the cost of capital and finance.

The high cost of petrol and gas mean that, on average, New Zealand homes that use gas appliances and petrol vehicles could save around NZ$1,500 per year at a current interest rate of 5.5%, and around $4,500 per year with a low-interest loan if they buy electric equivalents and get their electricity from a combination of rooftop solar, a home battery and New Zealand’s already highly renewable grid.

Compared to the task of reducing emissions from agriculture, Casey argues “the electrification of the 10 million small machines found in New Zealand homes is the low hanging fruit, because in most cases people are also going to be saving money.”

The question for Casey and Rewiring Aotearoa is how to accelerate the adoption of electrical machines and ensure everyone gets access to renewable technology.

“We call it our kaupapa, which is the Maori word for our purpose, and our purpose really is to have a debate about why it is we don't massively accelerate the electrification of our economy, because every New Zealander will win by doing that.”

You can hear the full interview with Mike Casey on the SwitchedOn podcast here.

Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
May 26, 2024
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