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Solar energy schemes lack uniformity in Australia
Professional experience: Paradigm Hill winery's George Mihaly's says their solar energy system powers both the winery and his domestic needs.
With carbon footprint reduction fast becoming both a social concern and marketing pitch for wineries, many owners are looking at ways to reduce the energy costs of refrigeration and other electrical requirements.
Paradigm Hill on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula is the latest winery to begin shifting to carbon neutrality. But rather than claiming to mitigate its carbon usage through external carbon offset companies (such is the emerging trend in Australia), the winery is taking a more hands-on role by generating its own electricity on-site from a renewable energy source - solar power.
The boutique winery has installed a 9.45-kilowatt system that can generate up to 9450 watts per hour in perfect conditions, yet averages about 8000w/hr, even on cold winter days.
Paradigm Hill founder and winemaker George Mihaly says the 54-panel solar array provides all his property's electrical needs.
'That means with the electricity I generate I am able to power my home, the winery, all aspects of viticulture, and our cellar door,' he said.
'Over the course of a year we produce 11 to 12 megawatt hours, and with all of the winery equipment we have, collectively we end up using about 10-11mWh per annum, so at the moment we are producing roughly 10% more each year than we demand.'
The system was installed by solar electricity and hot water installation company NU Energy and according to NU Energy chief executive officer Simon Schauble, Paradigm Hill's move represents the changing role of companies in the renewable sector.
'There is a much greater emphasis on strategic partnership and advice,' he said.
'Reducing the carbon footprint in business isn't just about doing something for the environment … we partner with clients to achieve outcomes that deliver real bottom-line benefits.'
Paradigm Hill typically crops 20 to 25 tonnes of grapes per harvest.
NU Energy business sales general manager Chris Horsfall says such wineries at the smaller end of the industry have been one of the more prolific sectors in terms of Australia's commercial solar panel installation.
He says the size of such installations vary from state to state due to different cap schemes on premium electricity feed-in tariffs.
The maximum size eligible to access the premium tariff in Queensland is 30kW at three-phase (the maximum standard is 10kW), New South Wales and South Australia are 10kW, Tasmania and Western Australia have yet to set cap limits, while in Victoria the premium tariff cuts out at 5kW.
States also have different schemes in terms of what portion of the electricity generated receives the premium tariff.
Qld, SA and Vic have a net feed-in tariff whereby they use the power generated from the solar panels first, with the excess being sold back into the grid at 60 cents per kilowatt-hour in Vic, and 44c/kWh in Qld and SA. The WA and Tas schemes are likely to follow this model.
But in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory, a gross feed-in tariff has been introduced whereby all the solar electricity generated is exported straight into the grid, with solar panel owners receiving credit on the entire amount (at 60c/kWh in NSW and 50c/kWh in the ACT). Electricity consumption within the property is metered and charged separately.
'They roughly get credit worth four times what they would be paying for the same amount of electricity - the reason being because governments have set targets for renewable energy into the future, so the more people supplying the grid, the better,' Horsfall said.
Yet while small wineries are an emerging sector for solar energy in Australia where domestic installations have typically been strong and commercial installations slow, questions remain over how viable solar power installations can be in supporting larger wineries with much higher requirements for refrigeration power.
In the United States, Australian Solar Energy Society chief executive officer John Grimes says a change in White House administration has seen an explosion of large-scale solar power installations in wineries. This includes solar arrays of up to 400 panels in Californian wineries, creating systems of anywhere between 100kW to a massive 766kW.
'The American industry was retarded under the George W Bush administration, but with the change of administration the era of solar power has arrived in the US, with massive government injections into green technology and initiatives,' he said.
'In Australia, most of the support has been pitched at the domestic scale, although some state governments are taking the initiative and implementing incentive schemes, and as a society that's something we are pushing for.
'For the wine industry, there is massive roof-space potential - it's dead space and can be very effectively used, particularly because winemaking areas coincide with high solar instance areas.'
Alternative Technology Association chief executive officer Ian Porter says support for large-scale solar power projects in Australia has been weak.
As mentioned earlier, there are caps on the capacity size in most Australian states, meaning solar arrays whose capacity goes above the caps are not eligible for premium tariffs.
'However, in the past 18 months, significant amounts of funding and support have been committed at both state and federal level, and yet large-scale solar thermal or concentrating photovoltaic (PV) plants are yet to materialise,' Porter said.
'So while the money may now be there, the policy itself has not yet been effective.'
Referring to the varying schemes across Australia, Porter would like to see a consistent and strong feed-in tariff policy implemented nation-wide.
'To date, feed-in tariffs are only being enacted at state level and generally with very weak schemes,' he said.
'These need to be strengthened and unified in order to achieve a thriving small-scale solar industry in Australia.'
Porter says gross-based feed-in tariffs are more progressive because they reward solar panel owners for the electricity they produce for the grid regardless of whether the energy is supplying the owner's own electricity needs.
He refers to the success of Germany's feed-in tariff that was introduced in 2000. In five years the quantity of electricity fed into the grid from solar sources more than doubled, with a seven-fold increase in installed PV capacity to over 1500 megawatts.
By comparison, Australia installed about 7mW in the same period, or less than 0.5% of Germany's capacity.
'Despite being a sunburnt country, Australia still lags the world in solar PV installations,' Porter said.
'To drive the kind of uptake of solar PV systems that was seen in Germany, Australia needs a feed-in tariff mandated at 60c/kWh paid on the entire output of a PV system (gross metering), and which is offered for at least 15 years.
'Only a feed-in tariff set at or above this level would adequately reward those installing small-scale solar for the range of environmental, social and economic benefits arising from this technology, and encourage the uptake at sufficient levels to achieve the policy goals.'
So while government support for large-scale solar power systems remains mostly in limbo, it is likely that smaller wineries will continue to emerge as the most beneficial solar installers in Australia.
And for those reluctant to make the investment, Mihaly says future energy prices need to be taken into account when considering the initial capital outlay.
'My point is it's commercially viable at my level of operation, but I suspect you ought to be able to scale up and introduce efficiencies with larger scale operations,' he said.
'The second aspect is the continuing escalation of energy costs … when you consider that, it really brings the commercial appeal of renewable energy and the independence it gives you into much greater perspective.'
Visit the Alternative Technology Association at
www.ata.org.au for more information.
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