Sunny-side up for eggs as producers turn to solar to save costs

Tamworth-based egg farmers Bede and Narelle Burke turn to solar, as more egg farmers look to farming the sun


Australia's egg producers are becoming some of the nation's most serious supporters of solar power.

Lighting up: Tamworth-based egg farmer Bede Burke has already turned to solar.

Lighting up: Tamworth-based egg farmer Bede Burke has already turned to solar.

Tamworth-based egg farmers Bede and Narelle Burke slashed their $80,000 a year power bill by 62 per cent after installing a system of sun-tracking solar panels on their 106,000 hen farm last year.

Their decision to buy a 99 kilowatt capacity solar installation followed a 60 per cent leap in electricity costs in less than five years, and forecasts of more big hikes ahead.

The sting of more frequent summer heatwaves combined with a decade of federal government fumbling on energy policy is driving Australia's egg producers to become some of the nation's most serious supporters of solar power.

The industry - one of farming's biggest and most consistent electricity users - also sees marketing advantages with egg consumers as it swings to cheaper, off-grid electricity and a goal of becoming genuinely carbon neutral.

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After almost a three-fold jump in electricity costs in a decade, major egg farm enterprises housing about 60 per cent of the Australian layer flock have adopted farm solar initiatives on a big scale.

Most of the largest egg producer enterprises - some with up to 5 million hens - now rely on the sun for a big portion of their huge energy needs according to peak industry organisation Australian Eggs.

With recent improvements in solar panel efficiency and more competitive installation costs, more mid-sized and smaller scale family ventures are investing big money in renewable energy, too.

It makes sense, and dollars

The shift away from relying on costly mainstream power supplies was common sense, said Australian Eggs managing director Rowan McMonnies.

"For a start, solar panels are actually a fairly natural fit on egg farms - there's plenty of roof space and spare land on which to position photovoltaic cells," he said.

Poultry sheds tended to be surrounded by open country as a biosecurity buffer zone to discourage wild birds and potential avian-borne disease risks, and also provided ample room for solar array structures.

Running a commercial egg farm's big, insulated layer sheds also required substantial amounts of energy.

To keep hens productive, healthy and comfortable much of the nation's flock enjoys a controlled temperature climate with the air conditioning running all year at between 23 degrees C and 28C.

The fully enclosed sheds also need artificial lighting day and night, while feed mills, cool rooms and packing lines also consume power.

Recouping investment

The Burkes, at "Glendon", near Tamworth, expect their initial $175,000 solar investment to pay for itself in power bill savings within three years.

They are now looking at more solar panels and options for battery storage to help cover power demands at night and on cloudy days.

"Batteries are not widely used in the egg industry at this stage because storage technology is still not so efficient for the outlay required, but we're considering an extra 50kW and enough storage to reduce our reliance on the grid overnight," he said.

There had been a "very big switch" to solar across the industry.

"Egg farming is well suited to solar," he said. "We use a lot of power in daylight hours, and unlike irrigators or many other farmers, we use electricity around the clock, every day of the year to keep the fans, lights and other machinery working.

"Not surprisingly, when outside temperatures are often hitting 42C or 45C, we need a lot of evaporative cooling in our sheds."

While the farm would not go entirely off-grid, it also had a 550kW generator as a backup power source in blackouts, which may last from five hours to two days when storms hit the district.

Australian Eggs' Mr McMonnies said although layer housing and climate conditions varied around Australia, producers were increasingly alert to extreme weather risks, and particularly the huge costs involved if they could not keep chooks cool during more frequently occurring heatwaves.

To help Australia's 300 mainstream egg producers get a good measure on their power needs and what was required to switch to self-powered farms, the industry body recently developed a solar calculator identifying solar's economic and sustainability options, and costs.

Solar calculator

Designed with help from consultancy group All Energy, the tool predicts the size of solar systems needed based on a farm's current and expected energy usage, and estimates payback times.

"Despite some fairly significant infrastructure investment, the payback period may typically be just two years, and then your costs could be almost zero," Mr McMonnies said.

Rowan McMonnies

Rowan McMonnies

"Five years ago solar power was something only very large producers were likely to invest in on a big scale, but options have opened right up to farms of all sizes.

"Every egg farm is vulnerable to rising electricity costs.

"When you're talking about 30,000, or hundreds of thousands, even millions of birds, there's lots of investment at risk and a lot of incentive for farmers to keep their hens happy.

"At the same time eggs aren't exactly a high priced commodity, so as power distribution costs have soared farmers have had to look at all possible options to contain costs.

"Years of government policy paralysis around the whole carbon tax issue and the need to future-proof our energy supplies have basically forced our industry's hand.

Sustainable focus

He hoped the solar calculator tool would not only assist more egg framers to identify cost effective options to guide their energy considerations, but also help the industry develop more sustainable farming practices.

Out in the marketplace, eggs already enjoyed strong consumer sentiment as a natural food staple, but community expectations were increasingly demanding farmers to focus on sustainable production strategies.

Improving waste management and feed efficiency were next on the egg industry's sustainability and economic efficiency priority list, particularly as feed, not energy, was probably the largest contributor to the sector's carbon footprint.