Solar farmer Chris van den Bergh.
Solar farmer Chris van den Bergh.

Solar array of hope for renewables

When Dunoon macadamia farmer Chris van den Bergh installed a large solar array on his roof and started getting cheques in the mail, he had a bright idea. He now hopes to build what he believes is the largest private solar farm in Australia.

Mr van den Bergh has submitted a DA with Lismore City Council to build a $1 million, 380kW solar farm on his James Road property, with 1606 panels over a 2500 square metre area.

He said generating renewable energy and earning a steady income seemed like a win-win situation when he looked at possible investments.

"It's completely clean and as good as maintenance free. It's a long-lasting investment, a 30-year idea. The return will only get better as the price of electricity goes up," he said.

Mr van den Bergh has two macadamia farms in Dunoon, but said the one at James Road was full of steep hills which make fertilising and harvesting difficult, and good crops are never a certainty.

He said removing macca trees to build a solar farm struck him as sensible on several levels, despite the fact the NSW Government scrapped the solar feed-in tariff. He is now in negotiations with energy retailers across the country to buy his power while looking for contracts with commercial businesses to purchase his energy, giving them the opportunity to market their green credentials.

He can also sell the Renewable Energy Certificates he earns to energy retailers who can use them in order to meet renewable energy targets set by the federal government.

Mr van den Bergh said his solar farm should generate 580 megawatt hours per year - enough to power 89 homes. Nick Lake from Nickel Energy says in carbon offsetting terms, that's equivalent to taking 800 cars off the road or planting 32,500 trees a year.

Mr van den Bergh said not only is the solar farm smart financially, but it sits well with his environmental conscience. He hopes once it's up and running and there is a solid return he can use the farm as a model and educational centre to encourage other investors to follow suit.

"It gives you a very good feeling to invest in solar power. By 2020 we have this obligation as a nation to have 20% renewable energy and I don't think we'll get there if we keep doing the small stuff like six or seven panels on a roof," he said. "I hope by doing this and setting the example, it will get lots and lots of followers who think about doing it on this size and scale."

Mr van den Bergh said it was a good way to diversify his income as farming could be hit and miss.

"With a crop you never know - we have had many bad crops. Some years the crops were very small or the price for macadamias was very low, or both. This will give us a certain income. It's a layout of $1 million… but maybe people could do half of that. And there's no ongoing layout - macca farms cost a lot with machinery and spraying poisons and pruning and all those types of costs.

"It all started because I did the maximum investment on my roof when the feed-in tariff was there. I got a 10kW solar system, so instead of paying a power bill I was getting a cheque every three months and I thought, 'Why not do it on a bigger scale and get a real income out of it?' It's a safer bet than leaving your money in the bank or buying shares."

Mr van den Bergh has lived and worked in Dunoon for seven years. He said he hoped village residents, who received letters earlier this week calling for submissions, would be supportive of the development as it was very low impact and was promoting a renewable energy future.

"I don't think there are many arguments against it - it will hardly be visible and it's just clean energy. Instead of spraying trees I will just be looking at the panels," he laughed. "I won't be spraying anymore, so there won't be any of that spray going into water run-off… it can only be positive.

"I think people in Dunoon will support it - we might become the greenest village in the country. The solar capital of Australia!"

The DA is now on public exhibition and submissions are due by January 27.

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