Riverland solar solution a saviour for growers

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By Melissa Keogh

Riverland electrical contractor Mark Yates has put the power in the hands of the region’s food producers.

Redmud Green Energy, an offshoot of Mark’s core business Yates Electrical Services, is allowing landowners to turn vacant or unviable parcels of land into solar farms.

By selling the energy to the National Electricity Market (NEM), the result is a second income stream for farmers and a stronger local economy.

Launching two years ago, the innovative solar scheme has already thrown a lifeline to a number of Riverland grape and citrus growers suffering from high irrigation costs.

Mark Yates of Yates Electrical Services and Redmud Green Energy.

With experience working across electrical, high voltage and wind farm installations since launching Yates Electrical Services in 2004, Mark also knew that SA was in the midst of a “solar boom”.

He realised a way for farmers to generate a supplementary income by reactivating one acre land blocks into solar farms.

So he studied the NEM and installed a trial solar farm in Renmark before Redmud’s first commercial site was switched onto the national grid five years later.

An average 200kW Redmud site features about 800 solar panels mounted over a land footprint of about one acre.

The array produces about 330mW hours annually – enough to power 40 homes for 12 months.

A Redmud solar farm among the vines in the Riverland.

The energy is sold to the national electricity grid through the spot market, offering landholders an average 10% return on their investment per year.

Currently 14 200kW sites are currently operating across the Riverland, while a number of larger arrays are under development with backing from several overseas equity investors.

One of Redmud’s first customers was Renmark-born citrus and grape grower Sam Albanese, who replaced a block of under-producing vines with a solar farm.

Sam says the solar farm earned him a 15% return on investment in 2016 and cut his power bill by a third.

He says the solar farm requires very little maintenance, unlike vineyards, and is hoping to install a second one in early 2018.

“With the solar farm you don’t need to do anything but occasionally spray the weeds around it and that’s it,” he says.

“It makes good economic sense and it’s good for the environment, so it’s a win-win.”

Yates Electrical Services has a team of 35 employees, including five young apprentices.

Mark says the business has received interest interstate, but he plans to keep the focus on SA.

“We understand the market and the process here in SA to get the projects across the line,” he says.

“Our climate is perfect ­– SA is good for renewable resources and we have reasonably priced parcels of land.”

The solar farm offers farmers a secondary income stream by providing an average 10% return on their investment per year.

Mark says he plans for Redmud to diversify in the future, helping to drive down power bills and strengthen SA’s reputation for being a leader in renewable energy.

He says software is currently under development to allow Redmud energy to be sold directly to customers, instead of going through the energy retailer.

“We want to be able to sell electricity directly to the customer … it takes out the middle man,” Mark says.

“Energy is a staple of life and we think that it should be affordable, reliable and not monopolised.”

The electrician-by-trade says SA has a big future in renewable energy.

“Renewable energy has got significant momentum not just in Australia but worldwide,” he says.

“The writing is on the wall.”

Yates Electrical Services is based in Paringa, 5km from Renmark.

This I Choose SA for Industry story is made possible by sponsor, MinterEllison.

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